Risk, Part 2: Fear and Control

Part 2 of a 2-part sequence on different aspects of how American society deals with risk:

It seems that government policy – and social convention, and cultural aspiration, and the tyranny of public opinion expressed through social media mobs – is now all too often fashioned by a destructively self-reinforcing partnership between those, on the one hand, who have lost all trust in their fellow citizens and who want so badly to be protected from risk, and even from discomfort, that they will trade away almost any freedom for a promise of a bit more security; and those, on the other hand, whose innate and fervent proclivity is to tell everyone else, with great piety and self-assurance, how to organize and operate their lives.

The more we have come to – and the more we have been taught to – rely on government to regulate the behavior of others, the less we have come to rely on – and the less we have been taught or practiced – the virtue of regulating ourselves. The more success the solipsistic fringe – economic more than cultural on the “right”, cultural more than economic on the “left” – has had in attacking and emasculating the economic and religious and social and cultural mores that historically disciplined such self-control, the less able we are to count on self-regulation and the more pressure there is to empower government to impose yet more external regulation upon us.

We can no longer negotiate and compromise – we can no longer embrace a shared process for governance rather than seeking a raw power over others – because we no longer trust each other either to have empathy or, more importantly, to act in good faith.  Why are we intolerant of risk?  Because we feel a lack of control.  Why do we feel a lack of control?  Because we don’t trust each other to do the right thing, either as individuals or as a polity.  In the absence of trust, even small risks loom large.

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Risk, Part 1: Trade-Offs and Value Judgements

Part 1 of a 2-part sequence on different aspects of how American society deals with risk:

“…we all intuitively understand, even if we can neither articulate nor rationalize the precise placement of the implied ethical boundaries – or are loath to admit to them – that the trade-offs in risky human activity between the potential for loss of human life and the potential for benefit, economic or otherwise, are not as stark and as obvious as the simple and common mantra –that saving human life is always worth any cost – implies.

To be blunt: there is, indeed, some upper bound on how much cost, either in economic benefit or in liberty, represents a fair trade for a statistical human life.  And we all personally adjudge where that bound lies, implicitly if not explicitly, many times per day, every day, as a matter of routine. We all take risks and impose risks on others because we think we will reap some economic or physical or emotional or social or moral or spiritual reward from doing so…

“There is a legitimate, important, and ongoing debate that we may and should have over where, on the continuum of behavior, the margin lies between prudent risk-taking and reckless disregard. But we must acknowledge that there is a continuum, not a simple border: not all risks are reckless ones and there are costs sufficiently dire, and benefits sufficiently valuable, that they may, indeed, justify the risk of precipitating some generalized and arbitrarily-distributed human suffering in order to forestall or foster them.”

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Reasonable and Unreasonable “Disclosure”

It is no more reasonable to demand that Pete Buttigieg disclose who he did work for at McKinsey and what that work entailed than it would be to demand that a doctor or a therapist running for office disclose his or her list of patients and all their medical and psychological histories, or to demand that a lawyer running for office disclose his or her list of clients and the details of all their legal troubles.

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Making the Case for Impeachment

The leaders of the Democratic Party have spent the last three years creating an appearance of partisanship and an atmosphere of skepticism: by first raising the specter of impeachment (or an invocation of the 25th amendment) to remove Trump from the Presidency immediately after his election, even before he took office and, therefore by definition, literally before it was possible , never mind reasonable or necessary, to impeach him; by encouraging various candidates in the mid-term Congressional elections to campaign on that promise (“If elected, I will vote to impeach Trump”), thus making impeachment appear to be a convenient electoral strategy rather than a serious and ethical act of accountability; and by allowing their rhetoric about his alleged crimes to get so far out ahead of any actual investigations that the rhetoric was very rarely tied in any concrete way to demonstrable facts and seemed to be driving the investigations rather than resulting from them. The message they have communicated is simple: they always planned to impeach him; they were simply looking for a good excuse.

To be clear: Trump is both an appalling human being and an awful President. He deserves to be defeated at the polls in the next election, now less than a year away.  From the latest evidence, he has also abused both the powers and the oath of his office and deserves, in this moment, to be impeached. And the Congressional Republicans have forsworn any claims either to integrity or to principle by making it clear they intend to judge him solely as partisans and enablers, not as defenders of the Constitutional order and of the national interest.

But everything that preceded this moment has primed those who are not self-declared members of the “resistance” to presume that attempts to impeach Trump are not, and have never been, about “accountability” but, rather, are, and have always been, about power — about overturning the result of an election that the Democrats really, really didn’t like. And there is a legitimate question about which is worse: Trump’s tawdry abuse of the authority of the Presidency, by using the levers of foreign policy to help in his next election; or the Democrats’ tawdry abuse of the authority the Congress, by politicizing and cheapening the power of oversight, investigation, and impeachment in order to undo the results of the previous election. If either of those becomes a common part of our political culture then we are, indeed, in trouble.  No matter which way this goes, some set of bad guys gets rewarded for their bad behavior and some damaging precedent gets established for the future conduct of politics and governance.

The question is, what could Democratic leaders do now to overcome that sorry history and to convince the justifiably skeptical that, this time, they are actually and truly acting on honest principle instead of from base partisanship?

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Laws against “Domestic Terrorism Hate Crimes”

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo just penned an OpEd for CNN in which he touted a proposal that New York state “pass a national precedent: a Hate Crimes Domestic Terrorism Act.” He went on to explain:

For anyone who launches a mass attack and kills on the basis of race, nationality, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity, the penalty should be the same as it is for other terrorist crimes: up to life without parole.

One might reasonably ask: what, currently, is the penalty in New York for someone who “launches a mass attack and kills” — on any basis at all, regardless of whether or not or they were motivated by some hatred from Governor Cuomo’s laundry list of special categories? If the answer is not, already, “up to life without parole“, then the problem would seem to be not a lack of laws against “Domestic Terrorism” or “Hate Crimes” but a casual and wholly inadequate attitude toward dealing generally with those who would destroy innocent human lives.

If, on the other hand, the punishment for attacking and killing people is already — as I would fully expect — “up to life without parole“, then what, exactly, does a new “Hate Crimes Domestic Terrorism Act” add, beyond empty rhetoric and craven virtue signaling?

The point is not that “hate crimes” and “terrorism” are not worth condemning: they undoubtedly are. The point is that it is the crimes, themselves, that deserve our revulsion and our censure, not the motivations behind them.

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A radical suggestion for the presidential debate…

Please keep in mind that the purpose of the debate is not supposed to be to make the moderators look clever, or to promote anyone’s candidacy, or to stir up the “horserace” aspect of the campaign that so obsesses political junkies.  It’s supposed to be about informing the voters as to what their choices are.

You don’t facilitate that by getting the leading candidates to regurgitate whatever has already been reported about them ad nauseum or to pick petty fights with each other over subtleties and minutiae; you do facilitate that by actually giving the other candidates a voice.

I have a suggestion: Perhaps your moderators for the upcoming debate could actually direct more of their questions toward the lesser-known candidates!

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Socialism, Capitalism, and the Liberal Republic

It is true that people — not only ignorant self-described “conservatives” but also many ignorant self-described “Socialists” — often throw the word “Socialism” around without seeming to understand what it means.  But,it is also true (OK, it is at least my not-so-humble opinion) that the many articles published recently trying to explain why various brands of “liberalism” are not actually the same as “Socialism” have been overly narrow and parochial in their view of what Socialism is and entails, limiting their argument to the simplistic (and flawed) formulation that it can’t really be Socialism if the government doesn’t “own” the means of production.

But, if that isn’t the defining nature of “Socialism”, then what is? For that matter, what is the defining nature of “Capitalism”? And how do either interact, for better or worse, with the moral premises and practical structures of our Liberal Republic?

In six parts:

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An Open Letter to the Republican Party

For as long as I can remember — and my memory goes back to Lyndon Johnson – the electoral message of the Democratic party has included, fairly prominently, the following proposition:

Vote for me! I’ll give you something and make somebody else pay for it!

In recent elections that proposition has not only been featured prominently, it has been the highlight. Remember the 1%? Remember how “the rich” are not paying their “fair share”? Remember Thomas Frank’s lament, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” What was his argument?

Hey, we promised to give you something and make someone else pay for it! You must not have been listening!

Yes, the Republican Party has been featuring its grumpy old men and its “back in the day…” cultural attitudes, and it has paid for that. Yes, it needs to have a serious internal conversation about what really are the core Republican principles, to differentiate them from the cultural and emotional fetishes that seem to absorb its “activists”.

But, in the end, even if they could get past all that, the question remains: how do you convince people to refuse a free lunch? How do you counter the allure of getting something for nothing?

You have to explain why that can’t work!

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Your Tribe or Mine?

I am a (late) middle-aged white man and so, I admit, my experiences of race are almost certainly far removed from yours. But, notwithstanding that, it would seem to me that you and I, with our somewhat similar education levels, economic status, and (in all likelihood) cultural tastes and attitudes, are likely “tribe-mates” in ways far more fundamental than a mere matter of skin color or genetic heritage. And I don’t consider people who beat up others out of some misguided sense of grievance, or who spew ignorance and hate, to be part of my “tribe”. The fact that they may have white skin or may come from the same geographical area as I really has nothing to do with that determination.

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