Thursday, September 24, 2020

Can Liberal Democracy Survive?

As authoritarian, repressive and nationalistic political leaders and parties proliferate and the Western democracies waver in the face of the globalization and climate change, it’s reasonable to ask if liberal democracy can survive. Indeed, globalization and its discontents – diminished prospects, resentment, and blame castinghave become a potent political force undermining mutual tolerance, optimism and willingness to compromise without which democracy falters. The non-democratic regimes – China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea – see blood in the water and seek to hasten the decline. Others – Hungary, Poland, Turkey – sense the winds and seek to entrench themselves in power through superficially democratic means.

Liberal democracy: an open society with constitutional government based on popular consent, allocation of political power through multi-party elections, separation of powers, rule of law, market economy with private property, and equal protection of human rights, civil rights, civil liberties and political freedom for all regardless of belief, self-identity, race, religion, gender or ethnicity.

Liberal democracy and evolution: Darwinian evolution works through adaption of species to their environment through natural selection, that is, through random mutations, some of which allow individual organisms to reproduce more successfully than others. In this way, a species may evolve over time into something new. Some fail to survive because of environmental changes too rapid to allow time for successful mutations to arise – the Cretaceous impact that wiped out the dinosaurs – or because they become too tied to an environment which then disappears – as happening to lemur species in Madagascar as rain forests fall victim to man.

Although we are social creatures, human nature is highly individualistic. We strive as individuals to survive and thrive in our environment. A liberal democratic society can be thought of as a species that permits the fullest range of random “mutations” as unique individuals are allowed to live and innovate as their individual nature and capabilities allow. Such a society is more likely to successfully meet the challenges of its environment and thrive than one which seeks to limit or control individual variability. Liberal democracy confers evolutionary advantage.

Globalization is an ideology: For decades, liberal democracy has been in the hands of capitalist, rent-seeking elites pushing their self-serving ideology of supra-national, borderless free trade. In the U.S., this has been at the expense of the working class and increased inequality. Those left behind by globalization make up the natural breeding ground of support for the populist, nativist politics used by rightist parties seeking to entrench themselves in power through subverting democratic practices.

But there is nothing sacrosanct about globalization. There is no reason why a polity could not decide to place limits on international capitalism within its borders. It might well value policies in support of domestic labor and domestic production even if it led to higher prices. These could be offset through creation of better paid union jobs, addressing economic inequality with higher minimum wages and perhaps guaranteed minimum incomes, higher taxes on the wealthy and big corporations and rebuilding industry and extending infrastructure green.

Building it back better: Liberal democracy’s evolutionary advantage lies in openness to random change, i.e. economic, technological, cultural and social innovation. To reach its potential, innovation needs enabling infrastructure and a population with full access to public primary and secondary education and opportunities for university and technical and vocational training. It requires mass communication and transport systems available everywhere and at every level. In the U.S., government played a large role here through providing postal services, building roads and supporting rail systems. These could be brought into the 21st Century by bringing free broadband Internet to every home, small business, library and school. Efficient mass transport networks in cities and through small towns and rural areas would allow decentralization of economic activity without requiring more cars. The Postal Service with its presence everywhere – provides outlets for delivering not only mail and goods at reasonable cost but also direct government services for individuals and businesses. Government spending to connect and empower small businesses and green industry and innovators would be productive even if it increased debt.

Liberal democracy has considerable advantages over control systems. If the human species – facing our self-created singularity – has a future, it will be in the hands of something like liberal democracy. Survival demands the fullest range of mutation and adaption of which humans are capable. This can be a future in which the United States plays a leading role. Our democracy can fail only at our hands.



Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Language, Hunting and Bezos

Language makes us human and different from all other of earth's creatures. With it, we can think, plan and act. Other animals communicate with each other through various means (bees do it through dance). But only we have words and grammars, with which we can great structures of meaning. With language comes society, culture, science, technology, and history.

But from whence comes language? Perhaps from group hunting. Social carnivores such as wolves and lions do not have language but still coordinate hunting. Between early learning – cubs practicing innate skills and watching adults – and basic vocalizations, they can surround prey and attack in unison. Some whales coordinate their approach to circle their prey and drive them into a concentration that allows a dense feeding ball. But these creatures come with their weapons built in, fangs, teeth and claws or huge mouths.

Primitive humans did not have built-in weapons or thick hides. Out on the savanna, they were easy prey for other carnivores and would be poor hunters against anything big enough to satisfy the group’s hunger. They needed to make artificial weapons and, working together, use them to kill their prey.

At some point in human evolution, some series of chance mutations increased the brain’s capacity to process and organize information sufficiently enough to move beyond simple grunts and other calls towards a structured use of vocalizations. This would have provided a huge evolutionary advantage. Humans could begin to coordinate more elaborate approaches to prey animals.

Language – as it became more elaborate – would serve many other purposes, such as passing on learning about making weapons and which plants were good to eat and where to find them. But it may have been most useful at first in hunting. Homo sapiens even hunted the huge mammoths into extinction. The first leaders in human society may have been those most capable of using language to coordinate hunting.

Language allows the possibility of free-flowing thought. With words and grammar, individuals can recall the past, examine the present, probe accumulated human experience, and imagine a future to be pursued to advantage. Throughout human history, those that do this best made the best “hunters” and captured the biggest “prey.” They drove human development by finding new ways to exploit others and the found environment. As society superseded family, they also thought of monopolizing what they “captured” to turn temporary advantage into permanent advantage. Great war leaders might seek to become kings, great inventors owners of ever expanding conglomerates. Jeff Bezos seeks to own the core exchange mechanism of 21st Century economy.

The drive to seek and maintain profit has provided a positive dynamic in human civilization. We cannot and should not seek to prevent the hunters from seeking new prey. Bezos and Amazon clearly show the advantages of the e-approach to economic exchange and it has become very useful during the current COVID-19 crisis. Bezos has even prodded old line hunters like Walmart into more effective ways. But allowing the best hunters free reign only works for the group when they share the meat.

A number of “tech giants” have now become the focus of attention for their efforts to monopolize their hunting style and for using it mostly for their own gain. It is reasonable for the rest of us – who also do our part to maintain the social and economic order – to look to limiting their ability to seek only self-enrichment. This doesn’t mean doing away with successful hunters – even if we could – but helping them share better through truly progressive taxation, less exploitative practices and perhaps breaking up their enterprises to create room for more hunters.





Tuesday, August 4, 2020

The Profit Motive

There can be no doubt that the profit motive provides a positive dynamic in human society. It is essentially the drive for Darwinian survival expressed in the economic realm. One can argue that the tremendous global changes brought about in the past few centuries have not been unambiguously good for us and the planet. But it’s also true that the profit motive has lifted human life to an entirely different plane. It provides for the sustenance and comfort of billions and has allowed mankind to reach for the stars. It also seems that there is not a clearly better way to run an economy. Inventors, makers and sellers trying to get buyers to pass them money for whatever it is that they are offering does, in theory and largely in practice, effectively and rationally organize economic exchanges. It seems much more likely that free markets of willing sellers and buyers works better than any one actor or group of actors trying to mandate or direct such exchanges.

But.

Darwinian adaptation is blind. It does not automatically lead to the greatest good for the greatest number. It aims instead at the continued viability and growth of the individual organism. The other members of the species or the ecological community may find themselves not much advantaged by the successful organism and may in fact be harmed or out-competed. The profit motive in human society operates in the same way and does not, by itself, work towards the greatest good for the greatest number. Over time, markets become encrusted with the Darwinian “winners” whatever else has happened to the others sharing the economy. Inequalities will increase and society will move ever further from distributive justice. (According to John Rawls, a just society is one in which we would be satisfied being born into if we did not know where in that society we would appear.)

Pure markets – where the profit-seeking winners take all – are rarely truly free. More to the point, no innovator or entrepreneur has created all the inputs and structures that make his or her business possible. Every individual “creation” of something profitable rests on the social, cultural, political, economic and built capital that was already there. So it seems fair to place some requirements and limits on successful enterprises and even certain incentives to nudge enterprises towards adding to social value as well as their own.

Some examples:

  1. Progressive income taxes on individual and corporate wealth and income (from whatever source).
  2. Inheritance taxes on every generation and similar turnover.

  3. Various forms of government action to tilt income distribution back towards even such as livable minimum wage and unemployment assistance levels, some form of universal health care, cash payments to children born to parents below a certain income level, high quality and affordable primary and secondary education and vocational training and/or university.

  4. Occasional and limited government actions and policies to avoid or ameliorate the broad social and economic impacts of economic disturbances.

  5. Occasional, limited and restricted government support to promising and socially or economically beneficial technologies or enterprises.

None of this would entail abandoning the profit motive (or capitalism) but would instead go in the direction of perfecting its results.


Friday, July 31, 2020

Time to Be Progressive

It's possible to understand both of our two major political parties as having led America into a crisis. The Republican Party – in control of the US federal government and many states and in the hands of ideological and religious extremists – has been captured by an immoral egotist with no capacity for governing. In pursuit of elite interests and “conservative values,” Republicans have launched an assault on everything good in how our government has come to serve the common welfare since the days of Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt.

Democrats have not been on the playing field. They threw away the 2016 election by passing the presidential nomination through a politically correct form of primogeniture. The candidate threw it away through own goals and writing off voters in certain groups and states. Lacking any coherent vision to address the economic and social effects of globalization, the Democratic Party instead played to niche politics and appears to have little to offer beyond waiting for Trump to crash and the Republicans to burn.

Joe Biden does have a heart and could oversee cleaning up the mess the Republicans leave behind. But there must be a cohesive progressive agenda to go beyond that. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren understood that presenting voters with one could begin the process of putting the country on the right path again. A progressive agenda must begin with embracing the progressive income tax. Government needs money to serve the common good. Our tax system must be made more fair and taxes sufficient to meet our needs. (The Republicans have sought to subordinate this to cutting spending and a regressive taxing system favoring the owners of capital.) It need not be confiscatory but should treat the fruits of labor and capital equally with progressively higher tax rates on individual and corporate income no matter where it comes from and with very limited exemptions.

With adequate funding, the federal government can attend to the chief challenges facing American society in the 21st Century: healthcare, jobs, inequality and education.

Healthcare should be treated as a basic right as it is in other advanced Western societies. It need not be done through a government entity but perhaps with needs-based expansion of Medicare, a non-profit public option and/or payments to purchase insurance on open markets.

In the 21st Century, technology and globalization have conspired to reduce the need for human labor. There simply may not be enough good paying jobs for everyone. A reduction in the work week from 40 to 32 hours plus an increase in the minimum wage may help in opening job opportunities to a greater number. Federal funding to pay for some of the increase in the minimum wage could help reduce the burden on small businesses. Insofar as training will help prepare workers for new roles, government needs to fund that as well.

Inequality undercuts democratic community through making life for many nasty, brutish and short. The federal government should ensure some minimum income for those unable to work and those for whom jobs do not pay enough to rise decently above poverty.

Federal funds should support quality, free public education by focusing on providing modern facilities and adequately paid teachers and staff for all local public school systems. Federal oversight of local schools should be kept to the minimum required to ensure equal access.

Some elements of a progressive agenda need not require additional funding:

Money’s role in politics needs to be removed through campaign financing reform. A national commission on redistricting should oversee the drawing of congressional districts. Each vote should count equally.

A pathway to citizenship should be created for those now in the US “illegally.” A cross border agreement should be made with Mexico (and possibly with the Central American countries) so seasonal workers may go back and forth legally.

The role of contractors and lobbyists in the budgeting process – especially as concerns the military – should be subject to tight limitations.

The Democratic Party needs to begin talking to this agenda in the next three months and not only focusing on Trump’s disqualifications. Waiting for the Republicans to march lemming-like over their cliff might still not be enough and would nevertheless leave the country without a clear direction forward. Biden appears to be getting this.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

It is Class Warfare, Just One-sided

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas. (Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels: The German Ideology)

We citizens of the United States may be divided into two groups: the elite and the non-elite. (Peggy Noonan once labeled these the “protected” and the “unprotected.”) The elite own capital and use it to earn further capital and reap profit. They do this through the control and utilization of the means of production, labor and – to an ever increasing degree – advanced technology. (The non-elite own little outright beyond their own bodies.)  From the very foundation of our republic, the elite has also sought to control and use government to serve and protect its interests.  The “Founding Fathers” gutted the Articles of Confederation, which were built upon the popular control of state governments.  They put the federal government as far from the people as possible through an elite body to choose the president – an “electoral college” – and a “representative” congress that almost from the start tended to over-represent empty, rural areas – easily controlled by the local “gentry” and car dealers – over populous urban ones.  But the most effective method of control was the ability of the political agents of the elite to convince many of the non-elite to follow them against even their own best interests.  Since the early part of the 20th Century, the party of the elite has been called Republican.

The Republican Party has been the political front of the elite minority in its class war against the non-elite majority.  Make no mistake, it is a class war even though there is only one side fighting it.  This was clearer in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries when the big owners of capital set their goons and strike-breakers on early attempts to unionize workers.  But the efforts to deny worker rights, limit wages, reduce or deny basic social services and health care and send other people’s children to police the cities and fight the wars are cut from the same cloth.

Republican ideology – no matter how gussied up in the rhetoric of patriotism, religion, “lower taxes” and trickle down economics or hidden behind barely veiled expressions of white privilege – demands no government “interference” in the profitable deployment of capital while selling government every bill of goods it can.  Fox News has become the “ministry of truth” for this ideology.  Riding victories in empty “red” states and gerrymandered congressional districts, the Republicans have been able to win Congressional majorities as well as elect two recent presidents despite having lost the overall popular vote.  Seems you can fool enough of the people most of the time.

The non-elite has few champions, no organized party and no coherent expression of its own self-interest.  The Democratic Party sometimes appears to be onside with the unprotected majority but it also serves the interests of the elite because that is where the money is and when money talks, nobody walks.  Some Democrats do seek to present more egalitarian and balanced approaches to governing and they have done some good over the years, especially when there were moderate Republicans to work with.  But today’s Republicans and their media allies have been successful in demonizing anyone who offers alternatives to their “conservative” ideology as injecting socialism or class-warfare into traditional, “pure” American politics.  This while continuing to wage their own one-sided war to protect their privileged position.

America needs a new beginning.  Meanwhile, we are in the hands of our still free press seeking to provide facts and truth even to those who refuse, for now, to hear. And we also have the November election.  The key question is whether enough of the non-elite will come to resist this class warfare through more understanding of how its own interests differ from those of the elite and then vote.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

What Needs To Be Done


Let us put aside for the moment the fear that Joe Biden’s lead against Trump in the polls is bad because it seems all too reminiscent of Hillary’s last time. Let us also assume that that Republican defeat in November is so complete that the Democrats win both houses. Let us then consider what the agenda should be for a new Biden Administration in 2021.

The first challenge facing President Biden and the Democratic Party will be to begin the arduous process of undoing the damage Trump and the Republicans have done. This means first of all, of course, leading the country in the effort to put the corona virus behind us and refunding state and local governments and health institutions. But also, reviving rule of law and the administration of equal justice, undoing the dismantling of environmental protections, ending the war on immigrants, reimposing federal oversight of local police performance, aiding states to simplify and protect their voting systems, reestablishing our relations with friends and allies abroad and countering Russian, Chinese and other actors waging cyberwar upon us. These reflect simply the requirement to reverse the erosion of governance and national interest inflicted by Trump and his administration but will nevertheless take great effort and concentration.

But the real challenge will be even harder because it will require going beyond fixing what Trump has broken to fixing America itself as the damage predates him. Indeed, Trump is a symptom of the two fundamental and related problems that afflict us: gross and growing economic inequality and partisan tribalism. Economic inequality reinforces both racism and ultra-nationalism and exacerbates racial inequality. Partisan tribalism has made it near impossible to extract rational political debate and responses to the problems we face from our government.

There is no way to tackle economic inequality without re-conceptualizing how we do capitalism. The United States is as near as one can imagine to a completely laissez faire system, in which not only does the market rule in the economic realm but in politics as well. Both parties are fueled by loose money and have long accepted the results of the market, its up and downs, its winners and losers. The Republicans seek the to protect the gains of the winners and ensure that the downturns don’t lead to raised taxes on the rich or efforts to place limits on the way business is done. The Democrats – to give them their credit – have sought to provide and protect minimum social welfare and have begun to do the same with health care. But they too accept market mechanisms as a given.

It is time to place limits on markets, allow them to operate in some areas, limit how they affect others and ensure that their results work for the majority and not only the few. The goal must be to greatly reduce economic inequality and provide basic necessities – including health care – for all as needed.

Partisan tribalism goes back to the very founding of our republic. But the degree to which it has in the last decades overwhelmed the very ability to actually govern is without precedent. Bill Clinton’s effort in the 1990s to take the Democrats towards a more market friendly approach was met with worried warfare by Newt Gingrich and the Republicans. If the Democrats tacked right, the Republicans would go even further in that direction. Since then, they have waged class war in favor of the 1% and against the middle class and the poor by cynically seeking to enlist the latter into an assault on the very government that could protect them. The policies pursued by the Republicans lowered taxes on the rich, cut government services for the non-elite as much as possible and covered everything in the rhetoric of patriotism and charges that the other side were socialists. The Democrats seemed obvious to the possibility of representing the 99% (with Hillary actually calling them the “deplorables”). The Democrats therefore implicitly eschewed the class approach to the political war waged against them instead sinking into a morass of contending internal constituencies each seeking to tear their own piece of flesh from the party and its candidates. Bernie Sanders – not surprisingly an independent – understood this dynamic and sought to bring the party to its natural base. The Democrats twice refused. (Whether or not Sanders was too “socialist” to be elected leaves open the question of whether Elizabeth Warren was overlooked because she was too much a woman.)

Trump may bring the Republicans to their knees. But this will not by itself end the tribalism. Indeed, it seems time for the Democrats to go on the offensive. Clean up Trump’s mess, begin undoing economic and racial inequality, and figure out what kind of country America needs to be to face the foreign, domestic and environment challenges the rest of the 21st Century will bring. Yes, elect Biden and then get on with it!

Thursday, June 18, 2020

The Cosmic Reset


In an early episode of the original Star Trek, aliens put Kirk on a rugged planet to duel with the captain of a rival Gorn ship. Kirk wins as the dinosaur-like Gorn was intelligent but really slow.

On Earth, dinosaurs never became intelligent. Arising 240 million years ago, they survived some 175 million years and for 135 million of those were the dominant land animal. By the time they became extinct, dinosaurs had perfected two ways of living: eating plants or eating each other. The plant eaters were excellent at converting plant matter into animal bulk and could grow very large. The carnivores were very good at using tooth and claw to eat the vegetarians. Some carnivores – such as the raptors – may have hunted in pacts and perhaps had some wolf-like intelligence. But in general, brain power doesn’t seem to have been on the dinosaurs’ primary evolutionary path.

Mammals arose just 10-15 million years after the dinosaurs. But for most of their first 160 million years, they lived underfoot as squirrel-sized, nocturnal plant eaters and insectivores. For this life style, relatively larger brains gave an evolutionary advantage. So under the feet of the dinosaurs, mammals got smart. Still, even with their brains, they could not compete with tooth and claw.

Enter the six-mile wide asteroid that found the earth 66 million years ago. That asteroid – nudged out of its distant orbit by a chance encounter with another rock or after swinging too close to Jupiter or Saturn – had travelled silently on its way for perhaps a million years to arrive just seconds before the earth moved just beyond it in its own orbit. When it hit, it set the earth on fire and after it had burned away, caused a long dark winter that left most creatures dead and many extinct, including the non-avian dinosaurs. This disaster was, however, good news for the mammals. Perhaps because they were small, lived underground and could eat anything, some survived (along with birds, who are smart flying dinosaurs). Within a million years, the earth had recovered and mammals were the dominant large land animal. Some of those eventually evolved even further in reliance on brains, eventually producing us.

That asteroid wiped the slate clean, resetting the course of animal evolution in favor of the brain and intelligence. There is no reason to assume that an additional 66 million years would have led the dinosaurs towards the Gorn as in 175 million, it had not done so. It’s as if the universe has a bias in favor of intelligence and sent a “do-over” to set things right.