Skip to content

Living alternative history: reality check

5 of 45 Presidents Came into Office Without Getting the Most Votes Nationwide: John Q. Adams (1824), Rutherford B. Hayes (1876), Benjamin Harrison (1888), George W. Bush (2000), Donald Trump (2016). Alternative history, anyone? Check out the chart. Will we wonder, What if we had not lost so much in the Middle East? What if we still had a democracy?

In 2016, Donald Trump became President even though Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote by 2,868,518 votes. Trump won because he carried Michigan by 11,000 votes, Wisconsin by 23,000 votes, and Pennsylvania by 44,000 votes. Each of these 78,000 votes was 36 times more important than the 2,868,518 votes cast in other states.

In 2000, George W. Bush became President even though Al Gore won the national popular vote by 537,179 votes. Bush won because he carried Florida by 537 votes. Each of these 537 votes was 1,000 times more important than the 537,179 votes cast in other states. More…

The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Explanation. It has been enacted into law in 16 jurisdictions with 196 electoral votes (CA, CO, CT, DC, DE, HI, IL, MA, MD, NJ, NMNY, ORRI, VT, WA). The bill will go into effect when enacted by states with an additional 74 electoral votes. See map.

nationalpopularvote.com “Last week, Nate Silver, the polling analyst, tweeted a chart illustrating the chances that Joe Biden would become president if he wins the most votes in November.

“Mr. Silver’s analysis is bracing. If Mr. Biden wins by five percentage points or more — if he beats Donald Trump by more than seven million votes — he’s a virtual shoo-in. If he wins 4.5 million more votes than the president? He’s still got a three-in-four chance to be president.

“Anything less, however, and Mr. Biden’s odds drop like a rock. A mere three million-vote Biden victory? A second Trump term suddenly becomes more likely than not. If Mr. Biden’s margin drops to 1.5 million — about the populations of Rhode Island and Wyoming combined — forget about it. The chance of a Biden presidency in that scenario is less than one in 10.” —By Jesse Wegman, NYT, Read the article: The Electoral College Will Destroy America.

Absolutism fixates while creativity liberates

From two articles, contrasting Camus and Sartre, Decartes and Shakespeare:

1. “How Camus and Sartre Split up Over the Question of How to Be Free”
Their radically opposed ideas of freedom broke up the philosophical friendship of the 20th century. By Sam Dresser, editor of Aeon

As Europe was rebuilding after WWII, “They were gleaming icons of the era. Newspapers reported on their daily movements: Sartre holed up at Les Deux Magots, Camus the peripatetic of Paris… Readers looked to Sartre and Camus to articulate what that new world might look like. ‘We were,’ remembered the fellow philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, ‘to provide the postwar era with its ideology.'”

The existentialism of “Sartre, Camus and their intellectual companions rejected religion, staged new and unnerving plays, challenged readers to live authentically…” As Sam Dresser writes, “We must choose to live in this world and to project our own meaning and value onto it in order to make sense of it. This means that people are free and burdened by it, since with freedom there is a terrible, even debilitating, responsibility to live and act authentically… If the idea of freedom bound Camus and Sartre philosophically, then the fight for justice united them politically.”

Albert Camus: “Absolute freedom is the right of the strongest to dominate… Absolute justice is achieved by the suppression of all contradiction: therefore it destroys freedom.” In Dresser’s words, “The conflict between justice and freedom required constant re-balancing, political moderation, an acceptance and celebration of that which limits the most: our humanity. “‘To live and let live’ [said Camus] ‘in order to create what we are.’ Sartre read The Rebel with disgust. As far as he was concerned, it was possible to achieve perfect justice and freedom.” This absolutism threw Jean-Paul Sartre and many others down the addictive rabbit hole, the impossible symmetries of communism (plus of course, Tweedledum and Tweedledee).

Dresser continues, “With the publication of The Rebel, Camus declared for a peaceful socialism that would not resort to revolutionary violence… Sartre, meanwhile, would fight for communism, and he was prepared to endorse violence to do so. The split between the two friends was a media sensation.”

Dresser concludes: “Absolutism, and the impossible idealism it inspires, is a dangerous path forward – and the reason Europe lay in ashes, as Camus and Sartre struggled to envision a fairer and freer world.” Read the relevant and succinct article here…

2. “Much Ado About Uncertainty: How Shakespeare Navigates Doubt.” By Lorenzo Zucca, author of the work-in-progress, The Poet of Uncertainty: How Shakespeare Helps us Navigate an Uncertain World. 

I am spoiled for choice of quotes in this article, but Zucca begins by summing things up with a familiar and relevant theme:

William Shakespeare lived in an age of uncertainty. His society was traversing a number of unpredictable challenges that spun from the succession of the heirless queen Elizabeth to the ascent of a new class of merchants. But the biggest issue had to do with religious conflicts. In the premodern world, religion provided absolute certainty: whatever we knew was implanted in our mind by God. We didn’t have to look any further. Once that system of beliefs started to collapse, Europe was left with a yawning gap. Religion no longer seemed capable to explain the world. René Descartes and Shakespeare, who were contemporaries, gave opposite answers to the sceptical challenge: Descartes believed that our quest for knowledge could be rebuilt and founded on indubitable certainties. Shakespeare, on the other hand, made uncertainty a leitmotiv of all his works, and harnessed its creative power.

Zucca brings vitality to these matters by spotlighting some plays, revealing such things as ethics and factual analysis like we rarely see them. Because I am tired of hearing reverence for Plato, I like this:

Poets have long been denied the right of residence in the republic of philosophers. The main charge against poets is that their art is not likely to educate the masses to be good. Plato castigates poetry and claims it should be expunged of images that command excessive emotions: gods cannot be portrayed as moody or weak or as having too much pleasure; that would send the wrong message to the people. Heroes should not be shown as doing monstrous deeds; they would no longer be seen as models. More generally, poets have a tragic worldview that captures psychological conflicts within someone’s soul, but don’t advance recommendations as to how to deal with them.

Plato made an icon of Socrates, whose famous suicidal encounter with democracy lives in memory today. But how long would Shakespeare have lasted in Plato’s Republic? We only need to wonder what kind of death that would have been.

One more, involving the rebel poet John Keats:

Shakespeare’s vision from uncertainty brings together the imagination of a poet, the judgment of a philosopher, and the creativity of a scientist. Being capable to stare into the abyss without being swiped away emotionally is a great attitude for whoever wishes to further our understanding of the world and the way we live in it. The poet John Keats described it in 1817 as the negative capability: ‘when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. By refusing to colour the world with his own rose-tinted spectacles, Shakespeare allows greater room for systematic understanding. He has an intuitive grasp of human limitations of knowledge, and to this extent he painstakingly alerts us to the biases and prejudices in our judgment.

As Zucca says, “Uncertainty makes freedom and creativity possible.” Read the long and the short of it here at Psyche

How addiction to power hands out abuse

Some key Krugman quotes:

He begins with this quote from B. Traven’s 1927 novel, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre: “Anyone who is willing to work and is serious about it will certainly find a job. Only you must not go to the man who tells you this, for he has no job to offer and doesn’t know anyone who knows of a vacancy. This is exactly the reason he gives you such generous advice, out of brotherly love, and to demonstrate how little he knows the world.”

Krugman: “It turns out [Traven] knew more about economics than any member of the modern G.O.P. caucus — a group whose members believe that cutting unemployment benefits and thus forcing people to seek jobs at all cost will somehow conjure more jobs into existence.”

“Today’s column was about the failure of Senate Republicans and the Trump administration to come up with any meaningful plan to deal with the expiration of special pandemic aid to the unemployed. Much recent economic research has investigated how much effect this aid had on incentives of workers to seek jobs, with the apparent answer being not much. As I argued, however, this question is largely irrelevant: no matter how hard workers look, they can’t take jobs that aren’t there.” More…

And from “Today’s column,” Aug. 3, 2020:

The cruelty and ignorance of Trump and his allies are creating another gratuitous disaster.

“In case you haven’t noticed, the coronavirus is still very much with us. Around a thousand Americans are dying from Covid-19 each day, 10 times the rate in the European Union. Thanks to our failure to control the pandemic, we’re still suffering from Great Depression levels of unemployment; a brief recovery driven by premature attempts to resume business as usual appears to have petered out as states pause or reverse their opening.

“Yet enhanced unemployment benefits, a crucial lifeline for tens of millions of Americans, have expired. And negotiations over how — or even whether — to restore aid appear to be stalled.

“You sometimes see headlines describing this crisis as a result of “congressional dysfunction.” Such headlines reveal a severe case of bothsidesism — the almost pathological aversion [addiction to symmetry!] of some in the media to placing blame where it belongs.

“For House Democrats passed a bill specifically designed to deal with this mess two and a half months ago

“Republicans, however, have shown no sign of understanding any of this. The policy proposals being floated by White House aides and advisers are almost surreal in their disconnect from reality. Cutting payroll taxes on workers who can’t work? Letting businesspeople deduct the full cost of three-martini lunches they can’t eat? …

“Above all, Republicans seem obsessed with the idea that unemployment benefits are making workers lazy and unwilling to accept jobs.

“This would be a bizarre claim even if unemployment benefits really were reducing the incentive to seek work. After all, there are more than 30 million workers receiving benefits, but only five million job openings. No matter how harshly you treat the unemployed, they can’t take jobs that don’t exist.

“It’s almost a secondary concern to note that there’s almost no evidence that unemployment benefits are, in fact, discouraging workers from taking jobs. Multiple studies find no significant incentive effect...

“So the attack on unemployment aid is rooted in deep ignorance. But there’s also a strong element of malice.” Krugman muses earlier in the op-ed, “Well, I’m of two minds. Was it ignorant malevolence, or malevolent ignorance?” Understandable question, but I would place it more in the medical category of addiction to absolutes. But Krugman has long pointed out that this malice goes back to the old fixation on the excuse of ills attributed to the perennial criminal and lower classes.

“Republicans have a long history of suggesting that the jobless are moral failures — that they’d rather sit home watching TV than work. And the Trump years have been marked by a relentless assault on programs that help the less fortunate, from Obamacare to food stamps. As Oliver twist might ask, More?…

Don’t look away.

“Independent journalism is on the defensive, from Hungary to Malaysia,” by Ben Smith, July 12, 2020, NYT

“They are the little Gaulish village holding out against Rome,” marveled Naresh Fernandes, the editor and co-founder of Scroll, an Indian news site. Scroll, like the Hong Kong Free Press, represents a different strain in the current crisis for independent media — both are digital outlets in countries now rolling back their once-robust free press traditions.

More…

Tasting quality of place

Maine Grains is just down the Kennebec River from us, and when I taste the flour, I’m so glad to be here. And here’s what I saw on the NYT home page:

“Keep baking bread. Small grain companies may suggest a better path for American business, by Tim Wu, NYT, July 24, 2020.”

On the Maine Grains homepage: “We believe that a gristmill is at the heart of turning the many and varied contributions of a community into sustenance for all.”

Over the years we have been involved here and there in helping out the process of finding and reviving an exciting street life in old mill towns and their regions. Another book asks to be written, but here’s Tim Wu’s article and a few excerpts:

This bigger-is-better, dominate-the-industry strategy is a major reason the American economy is as oligarchical and homogeneous as it is. It leads to large national companies that richly reward shareholders and executives while limiting workers’ salaries and reducing the prospects for smaller or local competitors. The sale of flour is no different.

Companies like Maine Grains and King Arthur are challenging the commodity pressures in flour markets using methods that were pioneered in the craft beer and local produce markets. The commodity industry takes flour as flour — just an ingredient, the cheaper the better. But baking is also an emotional experience, an act of creation in its beauty and intensity, a longstanding symbol of the home. And it provokes, in some, a yearning to connect with local soil and local land…

A regional mill like Maine Grains represents a more radical vision: the return of true agricultural localism. As Amber Lambke, the founder and chief executive of Maine Grains, told me, there’s more to that vision than selling a fancy type of flour. The local mill is the missing link in a local food economy that sees regional trade between farmers, bakeries, beer breweries and raisers of livestock.

The regional grain industry also employs more people, relative to its size…

We have, for the past few decades, put our faith in an economic model that insists that everyone will be better off if we do everything to make production as cheap as possible, keeping prices and salaries low, and make every region of the economy highly specialized. That approach, it turns out, does make some people rich, but it does not help everyone.

The flour industry might seem an unlikely arena for business innovation. There was once a time, in the 1990s and 2000s, when it was widely thought that Silicon Valley would show us the way to a better, fairer economy, creating entire ecosystems of companies with distinctive offerings. Yet that was before the emergence and eventual dominance of Amazon, Facebook and Google. Instead of high-tech, it is low-tech businesses like craft beer and community supported agriculture that seem to stand at the forefront of economic transformation.

If it can happen with flour, it can happen anywhere.

Whole loaf here…

Mr. Wu is the author of “The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age,” and “The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads.” Both books succinctly helped me gain perspective on a warped economy.

Universal Civic Duty Voting Advantages

The Brookings Report: “Lift Every Voice: The Urgency of Universal Civic Duty Voting” raises awareness of reasons I hadn’t known, for example, as per the NYT:

  • “Larger turnouts would force candidates to broaden their appeal, reducing partisanship.”
  • “Mandatory balloting would eliminate the incentive to suppress the votes of opponents’ supporters”
  • “Money that parties now spend on registering and turning out supporters could be devoted to educating them on the issues.”

“The democracy movement is literally standing in the midst of a globalized movement for social justice… What was seen as impossible to discuss five years ago is being discussed now.” –Cornell William Brooks, Kennedy School professor, former N.A.A.C.P. president, who helped prepare the study.

“It’s about showing up, rather than forcing people to make a choice,” –Brenda Wright, senior legal strategist at the voting-rights group Demos and one of the study’s authors.

“The report urges Congress and the states to make voting mandatory, even if the ballot is blank, but also to make the penalty for not voting minimal and to offer a range of acceptable excuses for those who fail to cast ballots.”

“The study takes its cue from Australia, where voting has been mandatory since 1924, turnout regularly pushes 90 percent and Election Day — Saturday there — has a party atmosphere, often featuring grilled “democracy sausages” for those who cast ballots. But civic duty voting, as if it sometimes called, is the rule in more than a score of nations, including in Mexico and most of South America.”

So, that does it! I now fully agree that this is “vital to the long-term legitimacy of the democratic system itself,” and clearly “democracy is facing historic challenges.”

Yoganomics in print

The environment’s rhythmic polarity for the health of the economy is introduced step by step with the ancient sutra — a fresh look at natural law to help heal the planet.

Yoganomics, the book
In color inside and out with artwork, now available most everywhere.

The Confidence Trap: Donald Trump wants to be a dictator. It’s not enough just to laugh at him.

A list of reminders excerpted from the Guardian article by

He cages children, he holds a military parade, he muses about being president for life. Yet we fail to see him for what he is…

Demonising a group – in this case, migrants – as an alien threat, an army of invaders, so intensely and for so long that eventually any fate, no matter how brutal or inhumane, seems deserved, even when it is inflicted on that group’s youngest and most vulnerable members. Breaking up families, caging children in hot, fetid, disease-ridden camps – this is what dictators do…

What dictators always do: he’s building a hereditary dynasty… Those images [of Ivanka Trump] at the G20 looked absurd to us, but they will take their place in the showreel, so that, come the 2024 or 2028 elections, they can be used as proof of Ivanka’s supposed experience on the global stage.

It’s all there, if you can bear to look at it. From the kleptocratic impulse – Trump pushing to meet foreign leaders at his hotels, so that he can profit – to his undisguised admiration for his fellow strongmen…

Legitimising, the slave state Kim [Jong-un] rules so bloodily…

Palling around with Mohammed bin Salman, even though the UN and the CIA both agree the Saudi leader was directly responsible for the violent murder of US resident Jamal Khashoggi…

As for the simpering deference Trump shows Vladimir Putin, it’s a wonder Trump’s supporters describe him as a strongman at all…

Draw up a checklist of the semiotics of dictatorship and Trump ticks every one.

He muses out loud about being president for life, saying it would be “great”.

He’s indicated often that he would not accept the outcome of an election he lost.

He’s threatened to jail his political opponents.

He has the despot’s attitude to the truth – lying routinely, even about trivial matters, partly to demonstrate power.

So great is his sway over his devotees, he can make them believe even what is provably false.

And he has the despot’s contempt for a free press, forever railing against the “fake news” media and all but abolishing the White House daily briefing, which at least aimed to hold successive administrations to account.

Note his abuse of power to pursue vendettas against the companies that own media organisations that displease him: seeking to raise postal charges on Amazon, as retaliation against the Washington Post, owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos; and moving to block the AT&T-Time Warner merger to hurt CNN.

The most chilling moment of his encounter with Putin last weekend came when the two men bonded over their shared loathing of journalists: “Get rid of them,” Trump said to his Kremlin counterpart, perhaps envious of the toll of 26 murdered journalists notched up in Russia during the Putin years.

His disregard for the rule of law is also that of the autocrat. His aides simply ignore subpoenas to appear before Congress…

In the name of his invented migrant “crisis” at the southern border, he became the first US president ever to declare a national emergency solely to circumvent the authority granted to Congress by the constitution. “That was a pretty straightforward authoritarian power-grab,” according to Kristy Parker, a former Department of Justice lawyer now with the Protect Democracy advocacy group.

Why don’t we see all this as the behaviour of a would-be dictator? Part of it is a language problem. The archetypal despot lodged in the collective imagination does not speak English. Dub a Trump speech into, say, Italian, show it in black and white, and perhaps then we’d spot the similarity.

Part of it is that Trump has not been able to do his worst. No elections have been overturned, no dissidents jailed, no journalists arrested. The restraints of the US system have, so far, kept Trump in check.

Yet that can lull us into a false sense of security, what political scientist David Runciman calls “the confidence trap”: the belief that, because democracy has withstood past threats, it will withstand present and future ones too.

Red meat for thought

Trump breaks up the Party, Jonathan Chait:

“The most incredible detail of all, the one that reveals just how blunt the Trump con is — his campaign did not even bother to completely remove the wrappers from the steaks they purchased. The steaks still had the labels from the local butcher from which they were purchased.”

After further thoughtful analysis and succulent links, Jonathan Chait concludes:

“Virtually the entire Republican apparatus will follow Trump sooner or later, because without the voters, they have no power. And those voters have revealed things about the nature of the party that many Republicans prefer to deny. Whatever abstract arguments for conservative policy — and these arguments exist, and a great many people subscribe to them earnestly — on the ground, Republican politics boils down to ethno-nationalistic passions ungoverned by reason. Once a figure has been accepted as a friendly member of their tribe, there is no level of absurdity to which he can stoop that would discredit him. And since reason cannot penetrate the crude tribalism that animates Republicans, it follows that nothing President Obama could have proposed on economic stimulus, health care, or deficits could have avoided the paroxysms of rage that faced him.

“The paranoid mendacity of Joe McCarthy, the racial pandering of Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and George Bush, the jingoism and anti-intellectualism of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Sarah Palin — all these forces have embodied the essence of American conservative politics as it is actually practiced (rather than as conservative intellectuals like to imagine it). Trump has finally turned that which was always there against itself.”

 

A Conversation With Joseph Stiglitz

From an interview in The Atlantic by Gillian B. White:

In the ongoing conversation about the growing divide between the rich and poor, there are few voices as prominent as the Columbia professor Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel-winning economist and a former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors.

In 2015 alone, Stiglitz wrote two books on the topic, The Great Divide and Rewriting the Rules of the American Economy, based on years of research and expertise about the intersection of economic theory, markets, and policy. Each book highlights a series of problems and challenges that have led to the current state of economic inequality: a faulty tax code that rewards the rich and hampers the poor, an increase in behavior that boosts the economic gains of only a few while extracting more capital from the majority, and a misplaced focus on altering the economy in a way that benefits shareholders, executives, and investors, but not the average worker.

…..

Joseph Stiglitz: The observation you have is what most people are experiencing. GDP is just the sum total of the output of the economy, it doesn’t say how much of that is going into whose pocket. In the first three years of the recovery, 91 percent of all gains went to the top 1 percent. So the bottom 99 percent saw nothing. Many were actually becoming worse off: Their balance sheet had been destroyed, their major asset has been their home and the value of their home had gone down anywhere from 20 to 50 percent. Then came QE [quantitative easing of interest rates by the Fed], and it created a stock-market but the average American has very little in the stock market. Overall ownership of stocks, is much more concentrated than the concentration of wealth itself, so QE was basically a gift to the 1 percent.

The people at the bottom are not doing very well, and wealth inequality, in that sense, has gotten worse.

White: You were a vocal Janet Yellen supporter for Fed chair … Is the Fed moving monetary policy in a direction that helps the average American right now?

Stiglitz: … Now they know that 4.9 isn’t full employment, there’s weak labor market. They should have focused more on improving the channel of credit to make sure that money was going to small and medium-sized enterprises They should have said to the bank—like some other countries have done—if you want access to the Fed window you have to be lending to SMEs. You have to be making sure the money isn’t going to land speculation, real-estate speculation, not going abroad, not going to hedge funds, and so forth. Whether Janet could have done this on her own, I don’t know, but she was following the standard macroeconomics view that asks how deep is the downturn and then using the one set of instruments they have, which is lowering or raising interest rates. The interest rate is not the right issue, the real issue is making sure credit is available to expand the economy. Just using the interest rate is not going to have a first-order effect on the economy as a whole. You’re encouraging people not to focus on the really critical thing.

White: So are you not at all concerned about negative interest rates?

Stiglitz: Well that’s a continuation of this single-minded focus. Lowering the interest from 5 percent to 0 didn’t bring a robust recovery. Lowering it from 0 to minus 1/2 percent isn’t going to do it either. And as you start getting to these very low interest rates, you introduce some distortions into the economy. There’s some evidence from some European countries that it actually led to less lending activity. They’re just focusing on this one variable as if it was a magical number, and I think it would be great if every American small business could go out and borrow at a negative interest rate, we would have a recovery. But that’s not the interest rate that they’re facing.

…..

White: Early on in The Great Divide you ask who is to blame for the crisis and the inequality that grew after it. One of the answers you say are economists. To what extent do you feel economist and economic theory is culpable for the crisis? What is the role of an economist going forward?

Stiglitz: The prevalent ideology—when I say prevalent  it’s not all economists— held that markets were basically efficient, that they were stable. You had people like Greenspan and Bernanke saying things like “markets don’t generate bubbles.” They had precise models that were precisely wrong and gave them confidence in theories that led to the policies that were responsible for the crisis, and responsible for the growth in inequality. Alternative theories would have led to very different policies. For instance, the tax cut in 2001 and 2003 under President Bush. Economists that are very widely respected were cutting taxes at the top, increasing inequality in our society when what we needed was just the opposite. Most of the models used by economists ignored inequality. They pretended that macroeconomy was unaffected by inequality. I think that was totally wrong. The strange thing about the economics profession over the last 35 year is that there has been two strands: One very strongly focusing on the limitations of the market, and then another saying how wonderful markets were. Unfortunately too much attention was being paid to that second strand.

What can we do about it? We’ve had this very strong strand that is focused on the limitations and market imperfections. A very large fraction of the younger people, this is what they want to work on. It’s very hard to persuade a young person who has seen the Great Recession, who has seen all the problems with inequality, to tell them inequality is not important and that markets are always efficient. They’d think you’re crazy.

White: If you had to pick the biggest area of concern when it comes to inequality. What would it be and what would be the first step for fixing it?

Stiglitz: I think the change in labor law that has weakened bargaining rights of workers obviously has a very adverse effect. But there are two major things I would focus on: one is education. When you don’t have equality of opportunity because you don’t have equal access to education, it just seems so outrageous …

The second major issue: 50 years after the march on Washington, 150 years after the end of slavery, we still are suffering from the legacy of that, and we have problems of inclusion. Racial inclusion, gender inclusion, and that dimension of inequality is so undermining of our society.

Read the whole, succinct interview here…

 

%d bloggers like this: