Why Nonsense Rules the Day

In this blog I post my thoughts about political activities and important current events. I make a sincere attempt to avoid bias, though no one can be entirely successful in achieving this goal. My guess is that most people believe that they also do this, though it has been my observation that many fail ingloriously. But bias is hardly the only or even the largest fault that misleads people in their life choices and their political beliefs. An astonishing number of our fellow Americans sincerely believe utter nonsense, and that certainly can’t help. This includes conspiracy theories, some religious beliefs, fake medical nostrums, astrology, junk science and a great many political beliefs. Examples abound and I am sure your list is as good as mine.

Our choices for political leaders and then the decisions they make that affect all of us are significantly conditioned by these absurd beliefs. This is one reason why our government is failing to accomplish much of value while thrashing fruitlessly in the effort. This problem isn’t confined to dullards and the uneducated. I have always been puzzled why so many well-educated and apparently intelligent people believe such total balderdash. Quite a few of these deluded people actually have assembled extensive supporting data for these beliefs. Thus it isn’t simply that they are ill-informed nor that they are incapable of understanding the available data. Indeed many are equipped with a well-developed skepticism, though they do tend to target that skill selectively only against criticism of their beliefs.

Thus it is with great interest that I recently came across a peer-reviewed study of this very topic. The basic conclusion of the study is that in order to insulate yourself from erroneous belief requires two things. You must have the ability to think analytically and – most crucially – the inclination to do so. Thus many people whom you wouldn’t expect to believe nonsense do so simply because they want to. These beliefs provide psychic support. They make the chaotic and sometimes threatening world around us understandable and predictable. This also explains why these people appear to be insulated from counter-evidence or failures in what they predict will occur. They simply find ways to ignore such data, and their analytical skills serve them well in this regard. Or if they are intellectually crippled, they just call it fake news.

Any impartial observer would agree that this condition characterizes quite a few members of Congress and the current administration. But this situation is neither new nor remarkable. It only seems so because we all have to suffer the consequences of their ill-informed decisions.

All of us, myself included, are subject to this intellectual flaw to some degree. It is seductive and we must constantly fight to ward it off. One person’s conspiracy theory is another’s clever insight. One simple test you might perform to examine your own beliefs is to see if they tend to make you feel more secure or to give you a comforting feeling that you understand what is going on around you. This isn’t a sign of validity, rather it is a warning signal that your critical skills may have been blunted by emotion. Of course it also doesn’t mean that your beliefs are invalid, it simply means that they need skeptical re-examination.

In the political realm, we have sincere and well-meaning beliefs on one side that seem either sadly misinformed or even deliberately malevolent by the other side. An example for Republicans is their belief in trickle down economics. And for Democrats, there is the conviction that big government offers the best solutions for society’s problems. Neither side listens to evidence of flaws in these beliefs simply because they don’t want to.

Advertisements

Bloviation Rules!

I often watch the three CSPAN channels, so I am accustomed to how witnesses testify before Congress, which is to say with an irritating inability to speak concisely and to the point.

But I just watched an extreme case that should be a lesson to future witnesses. A NASA executive was testifying before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, and her opening remarks took at least 15 minutes. Normally witnesses are asked to abbreviate their remarks to 5 minutes, but for some reason the Committee Chairman didn’t intervene.

After she finally finished, I leaned back and thought, “Wait a minute, here! She just bloviated endlessly but in fact she had only two points to make: NASA needs more money to accomplish its mission, and it needs more authority in order to spend that money efficiently.” That’s it. It should take only a few seconds to say. It seems to me that bluntly saying this is more likely to be effective than causing Committee members’ attention to wander, as actually occurred. I suspect that the shock alone would induce interest and attention.

Our Constitution: A Historic Perspective

Most historians view our Constitution as one of the greatest developments in human society. Clearly it was far from perfect in its origins, though it is continually changed – mostly for the better – through amendments and evolving interpretations. But one important aspect is rarely mentioned.

Two acknowledged stains on the original concept were its accommodations to slavery and the lack of a Bill of Rights. Both have been remedied, though the first of these is frequently viewed by black commentators as imperfectly redeemed. Yet there actually was a far worse defect that was so deeply embedded in our psyche that it was never even discussed by the founders. Not once during the Constitutional Conventions or in such basis documents as the Federalist Papers was the idea of equal rights for women even mentioned.

Do you recognize this quote? “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union …” To be more accurate, it should have begun, “We the White Men of the United States …” And so we have this painting of our founders.

Historians agree that there are two aspects of our current political situation that would totally amaze the founders. One of these is the participation of women in having the vote and in holding office. Even the thought of a female President would have had them rolling in the aisles of Independence Hall in 1776. And one can’t help noting that black men achieved the vote, at least nominally, long before we grudgingly granted women’s suffrage. During America’s early history as a nation, women were denied many of the key rights enjoyed by male citizens. For example, married women couldn’t own property and had no legal claim to any money they might earn, and no female had the right to vote in national elections. Women were expected to focus on housework and motherhood, not politics. Don’t you see at least a faint echo of slavery in these views, quite unremarkable at the time?

The second aspect of our political life that would amaze our founders is the power of the Presidency. Nowadays, when we speak of the U.S. government what we usually mean is the executive branch. So, when we are represented to foreign powers, they look to the President as our leader and spokesman. That would astonish and horrify the founders. While we have a balance of powers between the branches of government, it is absolutely clear that the founders gave preeminence to Congress as the true representative of our nation. The President was viewed as a tightly circumscribed manager. And in fact, there was strong consideration given to having him selected by the legislature rather than chosen by popular election. The bastard offspring of this debate is our Electoral College. All things considered, I am not entirely sure that a popularly chosen President has turned out to be the best compromise, given the regal powers now bestowed on this office.

A Presidential Death Spiral

Republicans began this term with a two-seat majority in the Senate. That means that they can’t pass anything at all controversial unless they can hold on to at least 50 members of the Senate. I think that may no longer be possible. By his own antics, Trump has broken the party.

Two of their caucus, John McCain and Bob Corker, are basically now permanently opposed to almost anything that Trump wants. Neither has to worry about being re-elected and their open disdain of Trump is evident. Both are traditional conservatives who have little in common with this President, who basically hijacked their Party. In addition, Rand Paul may agree with some of Trump’s agenda but certainly not with his incoherent methods, and he probably thinks that Secretary Tillerson was right when he called Trump a moron. The female Republican senators don’t approve of some of Trump’s agenda, and they have every reason to despise him personally. Other senators have good cause to bear a grudge against Trump because his juvenile antics and insults annoyed the hell out of them during the campaign and afterward. They may be currently reluctant to take him on because of his cadre of stubborn supporters, but that will wane as the administration fails again and again to produce anything worthwhile.

The bottom line of all of this is that the only way Trump will achieve important legislative goals is by toadying up to the Democrats. He could do that, and in fact has already done so once, but as a general legislative plan this would probably be the final straw for Congressional Republicans.

I don’t think we need to wait for the fat lady to sing anymore. The Trump Presidency is toast.

ObamaCare: a Republican Shibboleth

Say the word ObamaCare to most Republicans and all they really hear is the initial five letters, i.e. our ex-President’s name.

In the minds of these Republicans – such as they are – ObamaCare is a stand-in for President Obama himself. Their visceral, and sometimes racial, animus to Obama was entirely transferred to this legislation. It was his signature achievement and came to represent everything about him. You can’t separate the two. Repealing ObamaCare came to be thought of as handing an ultimate defeat to their despised foe. This is true even with the fig leaf of replacing it with “something better”, but with scant thought about what that might be, as events have amply demonstrated.

But with Obama comfortably retired to a life of leisure, and facing the realities of a health care system incessantly described as “one-sixth of our entire economy”, the Republicans flinched. The uncomfortable fact, still not yet acknowledged by Republicans, is that ObamaCare resembles democracy in being “the worst institution, but better than any other that we can devise and enact.” Oh yes, the socialist nirvana of a wholly government program like Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All is alluring to progressives, but don’t hold your breath. We are not yet Sweden and in my opinion never will be, thank God.

Too many people now depend upon some of ObamaCare’s popular provisions to even contemplate risking their loss. It was the genius of the Obama administration to ensure that enough people were hooked on their nostrum to make it effectively comparable to Social Security as a third rail of politics. To this end they tied what was promoted as a public/private health insurance system for those not covered at work to a massive expansion of Medicaid. The original purpose of Medicaid was as a social health care program for some but not all individuals with limited resources. Just as FDR never intended Social Security to be a full backstop against income insecurity among the elderly, Medicaid had a targeted focus on those most in need. Now this was transmuted into a general welfare program extending well above the poverty level and with few meaningful restrictions. Once states accepted this lure, and most did, even many under Republican control, how could they possibly explain relinquishing this largess for an uncertain alternative?

Of course, it isn’t over yet. I expect that attention will now go toward the compromise being worked out by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R, TN) and Sen. Patty Murray (D, WA). If it emerges as a real piece of legislation, it won’t be able to carry the label “repeal of ObamaCare”, so will the Republican majorities in either House of Congress pass it? Frankly, I am skeptical. You might ask whether the President would then sign it, but I can make a confident prediction here. He will. And it really doesn’t matter much what its provisions entail. Trump is hardly an ideologue – that requires actually having some ideas – and he sorely needs a legislative victory. These have been few and far between so far and the future of the rest of his agenda seems bleak without this win under his belt.

An Insightful Analogy

On Fareed Zakaria’s GPS on CNN last Sunday, a guest introduced a clever analogy to describe what is going on in Washington since Trump took over. He likened the situation to a group of pirates who have captured a massive treasure ship operated by one of the great maritime powers. There are far too few of them to operative such a large vessel, and they are somewhat unfamiliar with its sails and rigging. As a result they dragoon the ship’s crew to assist. Not unexpectedly, these captives are not exactly enthusiastic, and as a result the ship stays close to its original course and speed even though the pirate captain wants to divert to his home base. So he rages at his cohort in a vain attempt to achieve better control. His crew is understandably upset as they expected easy going and great rewards from this marvelous prize. So they squabble among themselves about the best way to “right the ship”. Being pirates, used to enforcing their will by force of arms, the internecine strife quickly turns bloody.

The consequences of such a situation are very unpredictable. The original crew might take advantage of the internal disagreements of their captors and seize control again. Or perhaps the ship, under uncertain and disputed management, might run aground and result in disaster for all concerned. It’s even possible that the pirates might get their act together, perhaps by making a deal with the original crew, and finally achieve their objectives. And lurking in the background is the possibility that privateers commissioned by enemies of the flag under which the treasure ship sailed might meddle with the outcome.

You probably can see the parallels with the political situation facing the fledgling Trump administration. At this point I wouldn’t choose any of the listed outcomes as most probable, though my hope is that the first prevails.

Is competence really optional?

Suppose you need some small home repairs or to have your nice new home entertainment system installed. You could try to do it yourself, but often it is best to find an expert. He or she would have relevant experience and would know how to best do the job. This is almost always faster and it often avoids expensive mistakes. Doesn’t that make sense? The same principle applies if you have a medical problem, some important financial transaction, or a legal issue. It is true that consulting an expert costs money but generally it is well spent, assuming you do your homework in choosing the right person. And when picking someone to treat your kid’s broken leg, I hope and assume that you restrict your search to credentialed medical professionals and don’t consider having your gardener take his best shot.

This may seem obvious, but evidently it isn’t for Donald Trump. Although I can’t believe that he hires auto mechanics to design his golf courses or shoe salesmen to run his hotels, when it comes to the business of government the only relevant criterion seems to be personal loyalty.

He just selected a hedge fund manager to be the White House Communications Director. His choice to head the HUD office for the region that covers New York and New Jersey is a party planner. The best person he could find to be the Chief Scientist of the Agriculture Department has degrees in political science and public administration. While obviously not exactly a dummy, he is a decidedly square peg in a round hole. And then there are all those close Trump relatives managing White House affairs. They seem to be talented and successful individuals, and they are probably kind to children and small animals. But running our government isn’t an amateur exercise, or it wasn’t until last January 20th. I am fairly confident that we will outlast this experiment in incompetence, but it is likely to be rocky ride.