John R. Hazzard, Al Wood, and other eminences of the ukulele

Al Wood’s roundups of ukulele videos have been a highlight of Saturdays for many years now; the latest installment is no exception. My particular favorites from this list were the last three, from Maiah Wynne and Dreadlight, Laura Currie, and Randy Gapasin.

There were two other videos posted last week that would also have been worthy of inclusion. One appeared on YouTube late in the week, perhaps after Al had finalized the list. It is John R. Hazzard’s first performance video in two years, and it’s worth the wait:

Another notable absence is of a video I wouldn’t expect Al ever to include in his best-of postings, since he’s modest and it’s one of his own:

Also last week, weird New Orleans musician Dr John died, just days after the death of equally weird quasi-New Orleans musician Leon Redbone. So here’s a ukulele cover of one of Dr John’s best-known songs, from Jonny Ukebox:

And here’s Leon Redbone singing “Anytime,” accompanied by a fan on ukulele:

What’s wrong with Sherlock Holmes

http://moicani.over-blog.com/2018/07/ceci-n-est-pas-sherlock-holmes.htmlThe other day, Aeon published an outstanding short essay by Professor Rima Basu of Claremont McKenna College. Professor Basu argues that, when applied to humans, the sort of detached, empathy-free reasoning dramatized in fiction by Sherlock Holmes is reliable neither as a source of factually accurate information nor as an incentive to morally acceptable behavior. Professor Basu writes:

Consider how upset Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters get with Sherlock Holmes for the beliefs this fictional detective forms about them. Without fail, the people whom Holmes encounters find the way he forms beliefs about others to be insulting. Sometimes it’s because it is a negative belief. Often, however, the belief is mundane: e.g., what they ate on the train or which shoe they put on first in the morning. There’s something improper about the way that Holmes relates to other human beings. Holmes’s failure to relate is not just a matter of his actions or his words (though sometimes it is also that), but what really rubs us up the wrong way is that Holmes observes us all as objects to be studied, predicted and managed. He doesn’t relate to us as human beings.

She continues:

This kind of indifference to the effect one has on others is morally criticisable. It has always struck me as odd that everyone grants that our actions and words are apt for moral critique, but once we enter the realm of thought we’re off the hook. Our beliefs about others matter. We care what others think of us.

I’m reminded of a little incident that took place five or ten years ago. I teach ancient Greek and Latin in a university in the midwestern USA. I was telling one of my classes, an ancient civilization class conducted in English, about family life in ancient Greece. My explanations usually tend to lean on the brutally economic side, so when I came to the custom of exchanging dowries, everything I said was about the role that dowry exchange played in underwriting joint business ventures between neighboring farmers.

One student who came up to me after this presentation was obviously struggling to restrain her anger. In fact, she was furious with me. She was from India, and when she got married, her family gave her husband a dowry. As she labored to keep herself calm, she explained to me that giving him a dowry wasn’t “about” the economic relationship between the households. It was “about” mutual respect between the families, it was “about” the idea of a common future, it was “about” a pledge to be available to each other in times of need.

Now, I had addressed all of those points in my presentation. But I had subordinated all of them all to the cold facts of the struggle for existence and the high stakes of trust in a subsistence economy. So at first, I just encouraged her to keep talking. After she seemed to have run out of things to say, I asked if she had reason to believe that anything I had said about the ancient Greeks was false. She thought for a second and said no, that it might all have looked that way in the cold light of economic analysis, but that the people inside the culture could never have looked at it in such a light. So I was missing the most important point of the whole custom by presenting it as I did.

The reference to Sherlock Holmes reminds me of an event in a story featuring one of the most appallingly wicked fictional characters ever to anchor a series of popular novels, Brigadier General Sir Harry Flashman, VC, KCB, KCIE. In one of George MacDonald Fraser’s last Flashman stories, 1999’s Flashman and the Tiger, the old reprobate has managed to tangle himself up in some bad business with Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis Tiger Jack Moran. After Moran fails in the attempt, described in “The Adventure of the Empty House,” to assassinate Holmes, Flashman tries to escape arrest and disgrace by flopping down on the street and pretending to be a derelict in an alcoholic stupor. Two characters whom he does not name as Holmes and Watson come near:

If they’ve any sense they’ll just pass by, thinks I– well, don’t you, when you see some ragged bummaree sleeping it off in the gutter? But no, curse their nosiness, they didn’t. The footsteps stopped beside me, and I chanced a quick look at ’em through half-closed lids– a tall, slim cove in a long coat, bare-headed and balding, and a big, hulking chap with a bulldog moustache and a hard hat. They looked like a poet and a bailiff.

“What’s this?” said the bailiff, stooping over me.

“A tramp,” says the poet. “One of the flotsam, escaping his misery in a few hours of drunken slumber.”

“Think he’s all right?” says the bailiff, rot him, and blow me if he wasn’t fumbling for my pulse. “Going at full gallop,” says he, and blast his infernal impudence, he put a hand on my brow. “My goodness, but he’s feverish. D’you think we should get help for him?”

“You’ll get no thanks beyond a flood of curses if you do,” says the poet carelessly. “Really, doctor, even without close examination my nose can tell me more than your fingers. The fellow is hopelessly under the influence of drink– and rather inferior drink, at that, I fancy,” says he, stooping and sniffing at the fumes that were rising from my sodden breast.  “Yes, American bourbon, unless I am mistaken. The odour is quite distinctive– you may have remarked that to the trained senses, each spirit has its own peculiar characteristics; I believe I have in the past drawn your attention to the marked difference between the rich, sugary aroma of rum, and the more delicate sweet smell of gin,” says this amazing lunatic. “But what now?”

The bailiff, having taken his liberties with my wrist and my brow, was pausing in the act of trying to lift one of my eyelids, and his next words filled me with panic.

“Good Lord!” he exclaimed. “I believe I know this chap. But no, it can’t be surely– only he’s uncommonly like that old general… oh, what’s-his-name? You know, made such a hash of the Khartoum business, with Gordon… yes, and years ago he won a great name in Russia, and the Mutiny– VC and knighthood– it’s on the tip of my tongue–”

“My dear fellow,” says the high-pitched poet, “I can’t imagine who your general might be– it can hardly be Lord Roberts, I fancy– but it seems more likely that he would choose to sleep in his home or his club, rather than in an alley. Besides,” he went on wearily, stooping a little closer– and damned unnerving it was, to feel those two faces peering at me through the gloom, while I tried to sham insensible– “besides, this is a nautical, not a military man; he is not English, but either American or German– probably the latter, since he certainly studied at a second rate German university, but undoubtedly he has been in America quite lately. He is known to the police, is currently working as a ship’s steward, or in some equally menial capacity at sea, — for I observe that he has declined even from his modest beginnings– and will, unless I am greatly mistaken, be in Hamburg by the beginning of next week– provided he wakes up in time. More than that–” says the know-all ignoramus, “I cannot tell you from a superficial examination. Except of course for the obvious fact that he found his way here via Piccadilly Circus.”

“Well,” says the other doubtfully, “”I’m sure you’re right, but he looks extremely like old what’s-his-name. But how on earth can you tell so much about him from so brief a scrutiny?”

“You have not forgotten my methods since we last met, surely?” says the conceited ass, who I began to suspect was some kind of maniac. “Very well, apply them. Observe,” he went on impatiently, “that the man wears a pea-jacket, with brass buttons, which is seldom seen except on sea-faring men. Add that to the patent fact that he is a German, or German-American–”

“I don’t see,” began the bailiff, only to be swept aside.

“The dueling scars, doctor! Observe them, quite plain, close to the ears on either side.” He’d sharp eyes, all right, to spot those; a gift to me from Otto Bismarck, years ago. “They are the unfailing trade-mark of the German student, and since they have been inexpertly inflicted– you will note that they are too high– it is not too much to assume that he received them not at Heidelberg or Gottingen, but at some less distinguished academy. This suggests a middle-class beginning from which, obviously, he has descended to at least the fringes of crime.”

“How can you tell that?”

“The fine silver flask in his hand was not honestly acquired by such a seedy drunkard as this, surely. It is safe to deduce that its acquisition was only one of many petty pilferings, some of which must inevitably have attracted the attention of the police.”

“Of course! Well, I should have noticed that. But how can you say that he is a ship’s steward, or that he has been in America, or that he is going to Hamburg–”

“His appearance, although dissipated, is not entirely unredeemed. Some care has been taken with the moustache and whiskers, no doubt to compensate for the ravages which drink and evil living have stamped on his countenance.” I could have struck the arrogant, prying bastard, but I grimly kept on playing possum. “Again, the hands are well-kept, and the nails, so he is not a simple focsle hand. What, then, but a steward? The boots, although cracked, are of exceptionally good manufacture– doubtless a gratuity from some first-class passenger. As to his American sojourn, we have established that he drinks bourbon whisky, a taste for which is seldom developed outside the United States. Furthermore, since I noticed from the shipping lists this morning that the liner Brunnhilde has arrived in London from New York, and will leave on Saturday for Hamburg, I think we may reasonably conclude, bearing in mind the other points we have established, that here we have one of her crew, mis-spending his shore leave.”

“Amazing!” cries the bailiff. “And of course, quite simple when you explain it. My dear fellow, your uncanny powers have not deserted you in your absence!”

“I trust they are still equal, at least, to drawing such obvious inferences as these. And now, doctor, I think we have spent long enough over this poor, besotted hulk, who, I fear, would have provided more interesting material for a meeting of the Inebriation Society than for us. I think you will admit that this pathetic shell has little in common with your distinguished Indian general.”

“Unhesitatingly!” cries the other oaf, standing up, and as they sauntered off, leaving me quaking with relief and indignation– drunken ship’s dogsbody from a second-rate German university, indeed!– I heard him ask:

“But how did you know he got here by way of Piccadilly?”

“He reeked of bourbon whisky, which is not easy to obtain outside the American Bar, and his condition suggested he had filled his flask at least once since coming ashore…”

I waited until the coast was clear, and then creaked to my feet and hurried homeward, stiff and sore and stinking of brandy (bourbon, my eye! — as though I’d pollute my liver with that rotgut) and if my “besotted shell” was in poor shape, my heart was rejoicing.

(Pages 309-312 in George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman and the Tiger, London, 1999)

(Someone called “Workshysteve” has recreated this scene in Lego here; it looks like this: Screenshot 2019-05-24 at 10.33.29 PM)

 

 

 

 

2020 Visions

senator mccarthy

Eugene MCarthy in 1956, two years before Minnesota elected him to be one of its Senators

The 22 February 1988 issue of The New Republic carried a piece by former US Senator Eugene McCarthy. An adapted version of this piece appears under the title “Standards and Guides for Picking Presidential Candidates” in McCarthy’s 2004 book Parting Shots from My Brittle Bow. McCarthy provided lists of characteristics which should be considered disqualifying for potential US presidents. This list would rule out, not only every candidate who was running in the 1988 election, but everyone who had ever served as president. Since McCarthy did not share my conviction that the US presidency ought to be abolished, I believe that at least some of the characteristics  were included tongue-in-cheek, as a way of ensuring a transparently false conclusion.

Nonetheless, I’ve spent a fair bit of time these last 30 years thinking about McCarthy’s lists. The first list rules out prospective candidates on the basis of the jobs they’ve held. Among them are “governors and former governors, unless they have had experience with the federal government, either before or after their governorships.” Governors-turned-presidents come into office thinking that “they can handle the Pentagon… because they have reorganized a state highway department.”  Also excluded are vice presidents and former vice presidents, not only because vice presidents are usually chosen for reasons that have nothing to do with their ability to assume the top job, but also because service as vice president is a demoralizing experience that “is likely to weaken and confuse character.” Third, clergyfolk, their offspring, and “leading lay persons,” because “religious judgment and commitment is fundamentally different from that of the political-secular order.” Number four, generals and admirals, and number five, heads of big businesses, in both cases because they are accustomed to giving orders and having them carried out, experiences a president rarely knows.

The second list focuses on the conditions under which a person announces his or her candidacy. Announcements in February are disqualifying, since the ancients knew that February was a month fit only for “the worship of the dead and of the gods of the underworld.” Announcements made in the company of family members are a bad sign, as are any in which the candidate claims to be the representative of a particular generation or other demographic group. At no time should the candidate overshare medical records; McCarthy expresses his strong disapproval of “Jimmy Carter’s statement in 1976 that he was allergic to beer, cheese, and mold, and that he sometimes suffered from hemorrhoids” as tantamount to “indecent exposure.”  Nor should the candidate betray signs of actually wanting to be president rather than merely willing to accept the post; this renders suspect any aspirant who enters the race before attaining the age of fifty.

The third list lays out five “subtle signs of demagoguery.” Three stand out from this list. “Does the candidate now- or has he in a past campaign- call himself William (Bill) or Robert (Bob) or Patrick/ Patricia (Pat)? Or does the candidate, known previously as John III or IV, drop the III or IV for the campaign, thus in effect repudiating father, grandfather, and possibly great grandfather?” Apparently the senator would have preferred the volunteers for his 1968 presidential campaign go “Clean for Eugene” rather than “Clean for Gene,” but he missed his chance to do much about that.

It is also a “subtle sign of demagoguery” for a candidate to be “so heavily into physical fitness” that s/he might “walk or bicycle across a state.” One must be wary of such health fanatics. “These actions are marginally acceptable in campaigns for governor, but not for the presidency or even the Senate.”

Crying in public might be all right, provided two conditions be met. First, the occasion must be appropriate. Second, the candidate’s lacrimal productions must meet a certain aesthetic standard.  We mustn’t be satisfied if “the eyes just well up.” On the other hand, if the candidate cries “straight down the center of the lower lid, as Bette Davis did,” perhaps s/he might be suitable to be head of state.

A fourth list “involves more subtle physical, psychological, and political distinctions.” One might have thought that the ability to match the graciousness of Bette Davis’ tear ducts and to avoid making announcements in months known by Numa Pompilius to be of ill omen would be subtle enough for anyone, but McCarthy demands still more of a potential president.

The first pair of disqualifications on this list are excessive enthusiasm for numbers and for administrative detail. Such an enthusiast can “fail to consider the significance of what is being numbered, or so intent on watching for small mistakes that the big mistakes are likely to go unchallenged and unnoticed until too late.”  McCarthy illustrates these failings with the names of Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War; David Stockman, head of the Office of Management and Budget during the recession of the early 1980s; and Jimmy Carter, a Democratic president whose administration was such a cavalcade of disasters that the old liberal lion Eugene McCarthy endorsed Ronald Reagan for president rather than acquiesce in his reelection. Mr Carter also figures in McCarthy’s caution against speed reading as a direct route to stupidity. As Mr Carter spent his nine years in the Navy as an officer in the submarine service, McCarthy may have had him in mind again when he warned against anyone who may have “survived on artificially supplied oxygen for long periods of time,” a stricture which he applies to submariners, astronauts, scuba divers, and mountain climbers.

Last on this list is the requirement that the candidate know the difference between herding cows and herding pigs. The president’s work is largely with Congress. The members of the House of Representatives, like a herd of cows, have to be started into motion at a barely perceptible rate of speed, accelerated very gradually to a steadier pace, and then stampeded at a blind run into the corral or the slaughterhouse. The members of the senate, on the other hand, resemble so many pigs. They can only be started to move at all by working them into a full-on panic, and can be brought to achieve legislation only by slowly easing them into the illusion, not only that they know where they are going, but that it was their own idea all along to go there.

The conclusion may strike some as cynical, but I found it rousing:

Screenshot 2019-02-05 at 10.00.12 PM

As candidates enter the 2020 presidential campaign, some of McCarthy’s strictures seem to apply. Several governors and former governors are considering bids. Four of these have no substantial experience with the federal government: Steve Bullock of Montana, John Hickenlooper of Colorado, Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, and Larry Hogan of Maryland. I suspect McCarthy’s warning against governors and former governors would apply equally to mayors and former mayors who have not taken part in federal policymaking. In addition to Mr Hickenlooper and Mr Ventura, this category includes Peter “Pete” Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, Warren Wilhelm, junior (alias “Bill de Blasio”) of New York City, and Michael Bloomberg, also of New York City.

One former vice president, Joseph Biden of Delaware, is also making an effort to run. His vice presidency doesn’t seem to have weakened or confused his character beyond its condition as of 20 January 2009, though some may doubt that he had much character left to weaken or confuse at that late date, after 36 consecutive years in the US Senate.

As for religious leaders and their offspring, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawai’i is the daughter of a man who has been prominent in a group that arose from the Hare Krishna movement and author Marianne Williamson has been a spiritual adviser to many people. With 47 candidates on the currently active list,* there may well be others of whom I am not aware who fall into these categories. [UPDATE: Dario Hunter is an ordained rabbi. Stacey Abrams, whose parents were both clergy, does not appear below because she had seemed unlikely to run when I prepared that version of the list, but as of 8 February she is making some of the noises candidates make.]

I don’t see any generals or admirals on the list; so far as I am aware, the only veterans are Mr Ventura, Ms Gabbard, Mr Buttigieg, John Kerry of Massachusetts, and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts. The highest ranking of these is Ms Gabbard, a major in the Hawai’i Air National Guard. Mr Moulton was a captain in the Marine Corps, Mr Kerry and Mr Buttigieg were both lieutenants junior grade in the Navy, and Mr Ventura was a Petty Officer Third Class in the Navy. So I suppose they are all well clear of the hazards the senator saw in flag rank.

Several business tycoons are looking at entering the race. Some of these, such as Mr Bloomberg, incumbent Donald J. Trump, and John Delaney of CapitalSource have held elective office, and so are proof against the senator’s warnings. Others have not: Ms Williamson, Howard Schultz of Starbucks, John McAfee of McAfee Associates, Andrew Yang of Manhattan Prep, and Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks (and many other businesses.)

Cory Booker of New Jersey announced his campaign this month, falling afoul of the senator’s warning against February announcements. Others may well announce before the month is out. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota is expected to announce on 9 February.

As for persons who will be under fifty as of Inauguration Day 2021, that includes a dozen prospective candidates: Green Party leader Dario Hunter of Ohio (who will be 37), Mr Buttigieg (39,) Ms Gabbard (39,) Eric Swalwell of California (40,) Justin Amash of Michigan (40,) Mr Moulton (42,)  Mr Yang (46,) Julián Castro of Texas (46,) Akon of New Jersey (46,) Timothy “Tim” Ryan of Ohio (47,) Brian Schatz of Hawai’i (48,) and Robert “Beto” O’Rourke of Texas (48.)

Some of McCarthy’s strictures are easy to disregard; I, for one, am not convinced that the ancient view of February’s nefarious character is especially salient within our political system.  But perhaps his reservations about candidates under fifty years of age are better-founded even than he argues. A person who has risen to a position in which s/he is a viable candidate for the highest office in the land at such an early age cannot have experienced much frustration, disappointment, or humiliation in life. Frustration, disappointment, and humiliation seem to be the staples of a president’s daily routine. It is difficult to predict how any given person will react when immersed in these experiences for the first time. And there are few things more dangerous than a US president whose behavior is unpredictable.

At the time he wrote the article in 1988, McCarthy was a few weeks short of his seventy-second birthday, and still harbored his own ambitions for the presidency. He would wage his final quixotic campaign in 1992. So it is perhaps unsurprising that, while he mentioned the undesirability of presidents under fifty, he said nothing about a maximum age for presidents.

I do think the historical record would support the idea that presidents ought not be much more than seventy. The first president to turn seventy while in office was Dwight Eisenhower. Not only did Eisenhower lose substantial time to major health problems as president, but in his last year of office he gave serious thought to resigning, believing that his botched response to the U2 incident was a sign that he was too old to handle the job. Ronald Reagan turned seventy a year into his presidency, by which time he had stopped making notes on papers that passed his desk and the seeds had been planted for the Iran-Contra affair that would expose his incompetence for all to see. And of course the present incumbent, Don John of Astoria, was already seventy when he took office, and he seems to spend most of his waking hours live-tweeting Fox News.

Several candidates will be over seventy by Inauguration Day. These include Bernard “Bernie” Sanders of Vermont (79,) Mr Biden (78,) Mr. Bloomberg (78,) Mr Kerry (77,) Mr McAfee (75,) William Weld of Massachusetts (75,) Mr Trump (74,) Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York (73,) Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts (71,) and Stephen “Steve” King of Iowa (71.)  Several others will turn seventy during the next presidential term. Their ages on Inauguration Day 2021: Mr Ventura (69,) Jay Inslee of Washington (69,) Eric Holder of the District of Columbia (69,) Sherrod Brown of Ohio (69,) Mr Hickenlooper (68,) Ms Williamson (68,) Robert “Bob” Corker of Tennessee (68,) John Kasich of Ohio (68,) Green Party leader Howard “Howie” Hawkins of New York (68,) Mr Schultz (67,) and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island (67.)

If the only problem with septuagenerian or octogenerian presidents were physical health, we might give heavier weight to the years over 70 that male candidates have reached than to those that female candidates have reached. Women do live longer than men on average, after all. We might also award points to conspicuously healthy people like Mr Ventura and deduct them from pudgy fellows like Mr Brown or Don John. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to suppose that there might be a correlation between life expectancy and the physical and mental resilience that is required in a highly stressful position like the presidency, resilience that usually declines with age.

But resilience isn’t the only reason age matters. As a willingness to run for president before reaching fifty struck McCarthy as a sign of someone who is overeager for the presidency, so an unwillingness to run until near or after seventy might be a sign of someone who does not want the job passionately enough to do it well. Mr Brown could have run in 2008 or 2016; I, for one, had hoped he would run in both of those years. But he showed no inclination at all to do so, and even this year is not pushing himself forward as hard as are many of the other leading candidates. Mr Sanders made his first bid when in his mid-seventies, after decades as the highest-ranking elected official in the USA to call himself a socialist. That he didn’t want to run in the 1980s, 1990s, or 2000s led me to be skeptical that he really wanted to run in 2016. He’s working hard this time, but he hasn’t much choice- if he takes a pass on the 2020 election, he will forfeit the national profile that has given him clout in the Senate these last two years.

Others who may have wanted to run in the past did not make it because they couldn’t put together a viable coalition to elect them then; those people probably won’t be able to put together a viable coalition now either, no matter how high their name recognition may be driving their poll numbers. So Mr Biden’s 1988 campaign gained so little traction that a couple of borderline plagiarism incidents were enough to force him to withdraw in disgrace, and his 2008 campaign made no greater impact. To believe that he will do better this time is to believe that a large pool of his potential supporters have been waiting for him to approach eighty before putting him in the White House.

Mr Biden illustrates a third problem with immensely old presidential candidates. He has been a national figure since he was first elected to the Senate in 1972. Already his prospective candidacy has dredged up controversies from the Nixon and Ford years, relating to his stand on court-ordered busing of schoolchildren to achieve desegregation and any number of other issues that have long seemed to be bracketed with jimsonweed, CB radios, and the Pet Rock. Do we really want to relitigate all that antique stuff?

That old candidates carry the baggage of old controversies should be an especially piquant topic for the Democratic Party in 2020. Every nominee representing a party whose incumbent president is being term-limited out of office is stuck with the same implicit slogan: “Eight More Years.” For a while in 1960, Richard Nixon used that as his actual slogan, an intelligent decision to embrace and make the most of the theme he couldn’t help but run on anyway. In 2016, Ms Clinton was not only a former Secretary of State in the outgoing Obama administration, but also had been the single most famous Democrat in Washington throughout the George Bush Junior administration, and before that First Lady in the Bill Clinton administration. Her implicit slogan was “Twenty Four More Years.” That she managed to win the popular vote and almost win the electoral vote while carrying the burden of all that history is a remarkable testament to her political abilities. Having lost the last election with a too-long familiar candidate, it would be very odd if the next person the Democrats nominate were someone else deeply shadowed by a long and complicated past.

*Here’s is that currently active list, sorted alphabetically by the candidate’s first name and the party the nomination of which the candidate is likely to seek. I’ve checked these columns for accuracy as of 6 February 2019. There are more columns on the spreadsheet I’ve created to keep track of the candidates, these are just the ones I’ve checked for accuracy:

NAME PARTY Home State Age as of 20 January 2021
Amy Klobuchar Democratic Minnesota 60
Andrew Yang Democratic New York 46
Bernie Sanders Democratic Vermont 79
Brian Schatz Democratic Hawai’i 48
Cory Booker Democratic New Jersey 51
Elizabeth Warren Democratic Massachusetts 71
Eric Holder Democratic DC 69
Eric Swalwell Democratic California 40
Hillary Rodham Clinton Democratic New York 73
Jay Inslee Democratic Washington 69
Jeff Merkley Democratic Oregon 64
John Delaney Democratic Maryland 57
John Hickenlooper Democratic Colorado 68
John Kerry Democratic Massachusetts 77
Joseph Biden Democratic Delaware 78
Julian Castro Democratic Texas 46
Kamala Harris Democratic California 56
Kirsten Gillibrand Democratic New York 54
Lincoln Chafee Democratic Rhode Island 67
Marianne Williamson Democratic California 68
Michael Bennet Democratic Colorado 56
Michael Bloomberg Democratic New York 78
Peter “Pete” Buttigieg Democratic Indiana 39
Robert “Beto” O’Rourke Democratic Texas 48
Seth Moulton Democratic Massachusetts 42
Sherrod Brown Democratic Ohio 69
Steve Bullock Democratic Montana 54
Terry McAuliffe Democratic Virginia 63
Tim Ryan Democratic Ohio 47
Tulsi Gabbard Democratic Hawai’i 39
Warren Wilhelm (alias “Bill de Blasio”) Democratic New York 59
Dario Hunter Green Ohio 37
Howie Hawkins Green New York 68
Jesse Ventura Green Minnesota 69
Akon Independent New Jersey 47
Howard Schultz Independent Washington 67
Mark Cuban Independent Texas 62
John McAfee Libertarian Tennessee 75
Vermin Supreme Libertarian Kansas 59
Ann Coulter Republican Florida 59
Donald Trump Republican New York 74
John Kasich Republican Ohio 68
Larry Hogan Republican Maryland 64
Robert “Bob” Corker Republican Tennessee 68
Steve King Republican Iowa 71
Justin Amash Various Michigan 40
William Weld Various Massachusetts 75

A thought experiment

Einstein made “thought experiments” famous. “Suppose you are traveling on a beam of light,” that sort of thing, where you lay out a hypothetical situation and focus your attention strictly on the terms of the hypothesis, taking care not to put the situation into any context where you would be inclined to draw analogies between it and something about which you already have knowledge. I suppose thought experiments are just the thing when you’re trying to think about something like the relationship between space and time, where our usual habits of mind are not of much help. I’m usually skeptical about thought experiments as a guide to understanding anything that goes on among humans, but I wouldn’t dismiss them entirely as a tool for clearing our minds of prejudice in any field.

The other day, novelist William Gibson proposed a thought experiment on Twitter:

Before posting my reply, I scrolled through the thread to see whether anyone had already said what I wanted to say. Several came close. For example:

To this and other tweets making similar points, Mr Gibson answered with a reminder that the terms of the hypothetical specify that the abductors can be trusted. Since the first rule of thought experiments is that you have to accept the terms of the hypothesis, this was all that had to be said about the matter.

This poster came closer to what I had in mind:

Mr Gibson is a novelist. A very strange novelist, but a novelist nonetheless, and so it was quite reasonable of this person to expect him to have some kind of plot twist in mind that would develop from the psychological motives of his characters. Still, Mr Gibson’s occupation is not part of the terms of the hypothesis, and so it really isn’t playing the game to bring this information in.

This person is also thinking novelistically:

This person seems to have a happy-go-lucky attitude, though it is unclear how deeply s/he has engaged the hypothetical:

This person did stay within the rules:

Though perhaps it occupies too narrow a space within the rules. The terms of the hypothetical are not phrased so as to exclude the possibility that meta-analysis of their own use of words might be the best solution, though I think a minimal application of the principle of charity will incline us away from that approach.

Intriguing responses all. But I had something else to say, and it took me three tweets to say it. Here they are:

“If you accept that, however, there is nothing to stop you attempting to escape or to overpower them”- I thought of making an explicit allowance that what is preventing you doing those things is some threat that frightens you even more than the thought of being killed, but I was already posting three tweets on a thread to which no one else had posted more than one, so I decided against making it even longer.

That it is “only one of a list of conditions” means that it is not the case that they will kill you if and only if you win the lottery. It means only that your winning the lottery is one of the circumstances in which they would be prompted to kill you. By “indefinably long,” I mean that there is no rationally discoverable principle that will set a boundary to the range of conditions under which they will kill you.

Why am I playing the game by importing information about how characters like those in the hypothetical are likely to behave when others were not playing the game by importing information about that topic, or about Mr Gibson’s occupation, or about anything else? Because I showed that the hypothesis was incomplete. The hypothesis rests on the assumption that the captive has sufficient reason to fear the abductors that s/he must submit to the threat of murder, but does not specify what those reasons are. This opens the door to a substantial amount of outside information.

Make-Believe Presidents

When you spend a lot of time hanging around a collection of books, particular items sometimes take up a place in your imagination whether or not you ever get around to reading them.  For example, I spent a significant chunk of the 1980s in a used book store where a copy of Nicholas von Hoffman’s 1978 Make-Believe Presidents sat on a shelf. I never read that book; I’m not sure I ever opened it. But I can call the cover illustration to mind easily. It looked like this:

makebelievepresidents1

That book was apparently a study of the political realities that limit the actual power of US presidents. The title lingers in my mind as a heading, both for that topic, and for the genre of fictional works featuring imaginary characters in that office.

Since I posted something here the other day about another imaginary US president and his resonance with current events, I’ve spent a little time browsing through Wikipedia’s lists of hundreds of such characters. This guy sounds good:

President Geotekeezu-Chub’Chub-Pegaree (aka Andrew Wheatley/Geotkie)

  • President in George Morgan’s 1935 story Surprise in the White House

  • President Andrew Wheatley is elected in 2004 (a future date at the time of writing) after two terms as a Senator from Wisconsin. He is considered a mediocre politician, neither very Liberal not conspicuously Conservative, and no particularly noteworthy events are expected from his term – and so it seems in his first year. But in February 2006, a sensation does break out: Secret Service bodyguards apprehend Ward Bartolomeu, a White House confidential secretary, in the act of attempting to rape the First Lady, Mary Wheatley. When his trial opens in a blaze of nationwide publicity, Bartolomeu enters a bizarre plea: he asserts that the President and his wife are in fact humanoid extraterrestrials, descendants of the crew of an interstellar ship which crash-landed in Oliver Cromwell‘s England. Bartolomeu further asserts that the Presidential couple are in possession of a powerful unearthly aphrodisiac, produced under a formula handed down from their stellar ancestors, and that Bartolomeu had acted under its influence. Bartolomeu’s assertions are greeted with derision – until the President comes up as a defense witness, confirming all of these assertions and stating that Bartolomeu had unknowingly used a huge overdose of the aphrodisiac and was indeed unable to control himself. Thereupon, Bartolomeu is acquitted and Congress proceeds to impeach President Wheatley – some of its members believing that Wheatley is indeed an extraterrestrial, others considering him as suffering from major delusions and still others regarding him and his wife as grossly immoral – all of these divergent views alike being taken as grounds for impeachment. In the aftermath, the ex-President and his wife drop from view. An industrious journalist traces them to a hut at a fishermen’s village in Patagonia – but they refuse to talk to him. However, in 2011 the world is threatened by an imminent collision with a giant asteroid. Thereupon, the ex-President comes out of seclusion and offers to the League of Nations (still existent in this future) the knowledge of how to construct a powerful Repellor Ray Emitter,which is used in order to push the asteroid harmlessly away. Hailed as a hero and savior, he then runs again for the US Presidency in 2012 and is elected by a landslide – this time under his true name in his ancestral language, President Geotekeezu-Chub’Chub-Pegaree. In his inauguration, he pronounces the full name by its precise correct intonation. However, the public generally calls him “President Geotkie”. His wife – who has a similarly long, unearthly true name – becomes known as “First Lady Medgarie”. Geotkie serves three full terms (the story was written before the enactment of the Twenty-second Amendment), and becomes one of the most successful and highly-popular Presidents in American history. He makes available to the general public much scientific and technological knowledge passed down from his stellar ancestors – but is firm in suppressing and destroying the formula for the infamous aphrodisiac, which he considers too dangerous to unleash upon the world.

How many of President Geotekeezu-Chub’Chub-Pegaree’s real-life counterparts would even have the technical knowledge to build a Repellor Ray Emitter, I’d like to know. Probably the same number as would be willing to publicly admit to something embarrassing rather than let an innocent person go to prison.

canfield decisionAnother book I’ve occasionally seen on shelves but have never read is The Canfield Decision, a novel by Spiro T. Agnew. Mr Agnew will long be remembered as the second Vice President of the United States to resign his office, and the first to do so in disgrace.* Due to its authors notoriety, The Canfield Decision sold well. Few who wrote about it were favorably impressed. Most reviewers focused on the novel’s dreary prose style and poor construction, while the many tactless remarks it contains about the relationship between Israel and American Jews and about the role of American Jews in shaping US public opinion gained a substantial amount of public attention, eliciting reactions ranging from disgust to outrage. I remember a mid-1970s bit on Saturday Night Live‘s fake news segment when a photograph of a fully robed Ku Klux Klansman appeared above the anchorman’s shoulder. The audience grew silent at this grim picture. The anchorman then spoke a sentence beginning “Former Vice President Spiro Agnew,” at which name they roared with laughter.

One of the kindest reviews of The Canfield Decision was written by John Kenneth Galbraith in the New York Times for 6 June 1976.  Galbraith spends the first half of the review documenting the book’s literary failings and the bigoted views it expresses, and noting its author’s status as a convicted felon, a shameless demagogue, and an all-around blot on the national honor of the United States.  But then he goes on to find some good things to say about it:

As the book proceeds, one does have the feeling that Mr. Agnew struggles less and gets better. Canfield, presiding over the Senate, has an excellent contest with the majority leader over clearing the galleries, one which ends with an adolescent getting pitched over the gallery railing. Canfield’s deeply compassionate concern with turning the incident to his advantage is also convincing. So throughout are his adverse comments on the press.

Mr. Agnew is admirable, as well on the details of Vice‐Presidential travel‐ a matter on which, as distinct perhaps from global conspiracy, he speaks out of experience. The procedures and folk‐rites of the Secret Service, air crew, staff advisers and assistants, speech ‐ writers, stenographers, welcoming committees, local politicians and especially the traveling press are described in sometimes loving detail, and he brilliantly establishes a truth that many must have sensed. It is that Vice‐Presidential movements serve no absolutely no‐public purpose of any kind whatever. Nor is there any reason why any paper or network should cover them, surplus funds or the distant chance of an aircrash or an assassination apart. And there is certainly no reason why the rest of us should pay for them. I contemplate a Vietnam‐type deduction from here on. Though Mr. Agnew establishes this important truth, he is not convincingly aware of it himself.

The “Canfield Decision” may not be a great novel. But Mr. Agnew reminds us of how many and diverse are the people who want to promote trouble between the Soviets and ourselves for their own private purposes. This reminder is especially useful right now as memory of the Vietnam debacle fades, and the Cold Warriors venture out again from under the stones… The book is also useful as a compendium of bureaucratic and other styles, although there is the problem of reading it. And no good citizen will urge Mr. Agnew, as he might another writer, to return to his previous way of life. All will want him to keep on trying. ■

*In 1832, John C. Calhoun resigned the vice presidency to accept a seat as US Senator from South Carolina. Agnew resigned as part of a plea agreement to avoid going to prison for bribery and tax evasion.

Big beasts paw the ground, not needed in the hunt, not ready to sleep

ex-officio-coverIn 1970, Donald Westlake used the pseudonym “Timothy J. Culver” to publish a novel called Ex Officio. Even Westlake’s most devoted fans consider Ex Officio to be an overlong, tedious mess. But if you dig beneath the elaborate descriptions of drably furnished rooms in which nothing happens and bypass the occasional rants about political issues that stirred few passions even at the time, it is possible to find the kernel of an interesting story.

The main character is a man named Bradford Lockridge who finds himself bewildered and frustrated by his role in life. For the first 60 years of his life, Lockridge was the center of attention in every room he entered, and for the last four of those 60 years he was president of the United States. All that dynamism and challenge came to an abrupt end when he was defeated in his bid for a second term. Now Lockridge is 70 years old, still vigorous, still feeling like the man who once held the fate of nations in his hands, but unable to find any way back to the center of events. The novel was supposed to be an airport thriller, so Lockridge comes up with a wacky idea and precipitates a crisis that unfolds outside public view, among political leaders and intelligence operatives.

Lockridge and Ex Officio came to my mind recently when I heard that the former boss of the Starbucks coffee chain, Howard Schultz, had announced that he was planning to mount an independent bid for the presidency in 2020. The only reaction I heard from anyone was derision. It is very difficult to see who Mr Schultz imagines his constituency will be. As a public figure, he has associated himself with the hard-charging style of entrepreneurs like Ray Kroc and Harland Sanders, and his company with the progressive attitudes on gender and race that characterize its hometown, Seattle. If the 2016 election had turned out differently, with Democratic nominee Bernie Sanders defeating Republican nominee John Ellis Bush; if the Sanders administration had become very unpopular; if the Democrats were nonetheless set on renominating President Sanders; if the Republicans were condemned to nominate loudmouth landlord Donald J. Trump as his opponent; why then, suburban moderates might lead the electorate to a Schultz presidency.

But none of those things happened. In our universe, the presidency of Don John of Astoria has driven record turnout among Democrats in midterm elections and will likely drive such high levels of participation in the 2020 primaries that the Democrats are unlikely to nominate anyone who does not have broad appeal among the constituencies Mr Schultz might have hoped to reach had the scenario above played out. The nominee may not be an advocate of the Finance First economic policies that the Democratic Party has espoused since the emergence of Bill Clinton in the early 1990s, or of the omnibelligerent foreign policy it has endorsed throughout that same period, but if s/he does not, it will be because those policies have lost the support of the voting groups that are going to decide the election. If Mr Schultz plans to wed himself to those views, his base of support will be as fictional as President Lockridge.

It certainly is possible that, with such a large number of Democrats seeking the party’s nomination, the eventual winner will be someone who is unacceptable to a great many voters. But I don’t see any significant number of those voters plumping for Mr Schultz. For example, late last year Senator Kamala Harris of California allowed herself to be identified with an attack on the Knights of Columbus, portraying the 2 million members of that fraternal service organization as dangerous extremists unfit for public office. Those guys all vote, and most of them have large numbers of relatives who vote, and if Senator Harris doesn’t find a way to distance herself from that boneheaded stunt none of them will be voting for her. But that doesn’t mean they will be voting for Mr Schultz. They might consider him if he were the public face of a brewery based in Wisconsin, but a coffeehouse based in resolutely secular Seattle is not K of C territory. Rather than back Senator Harris, those Knights of Columbus who don’t want Don John back for a second term will probably just skip the presidential line on the ballot altogether.

At any rate, Mr Schultz does make me wish Ex Officio were a better book. It must be very hard for Mr Schultz, after decades of intense work and fantastic success at the helm of Starbucks, to find himself at loose ends. Some years ago, Starbucks reached a point where its founder’s daily presence in the office was inhibiting the rise of a new generation of executives who could bring the new ideas the company needs if it is to seize its opportunities in today’s markets. Mr Schultz has recognized that, stepping back and looking for other opportunities. He tried his hand at the big-time sports business, spending five years as owner of the National Basketball Association’s Seattle franchise. During those years I was a frequent visitor to Seattle, and I have to admit Schultz’ handling of the team was a substantial convenience for me personally. Under previous owners, downtown traffic jammed up pretty badly on game days, but by the time he gave up and sold the team to a group who moved it to Oklahoma, so few people were bothering to attend the games that it was no problem at all. Nor has he managed to make much of an impact doing anything else lately. After so many years of success, still only in his mid-60s and in fine health, of course Mr Schultz is looking for another challenge. If not for the hundreds of pages of nothingness that pad out Ex Officio, someone could give him a copy of the book, hoping that he would see in it, first, that someone understands his frustration, and second, that a vanity campaign for the presidency is not a promising way to relieve it.

Mr Schultz is not the only real-life Bradford Lockridge weighing a presidential bid. Septuagenarians Bernie Sanders (who will be 79 by inauguration day 2021,) Joseph Biden and Michael Bloomberg (who will both be 78 by that date,) and John Kerry (who will be 77,) are obvious examples. But so too are other, much younger candidates. The mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Peter “Pete” Buttigieg, will turn 39 the day before the 2021 inauguration, so that if he were elected he would be the youngest person ever to ascend to the presidency. But why on earth is he running, seeing that his educational attainments as a graduate of Harvard University and Pembroke College, Oxford, and his military experience as a combat veteran of the war in Afghanistan, would seem to promise that he might in future years rise to a higher perch from which to start than the mayoralty of a town of barely 100,000 people. Perhaps Mr Buttigieg is trying to vault directly to the top because Indiana is a rather  conservative state, and as an openly gay man he doubts that its voters will back him for governor or senator. And maybe they won’t! But there are a lot of states that are as conservative as or more conservative than Indiana, and some of those are likely to be in play in next year’s presidential election. If he is tacitly admitting that can’t compete for statewide office in his home state, he will start the presidential campaign having conceded North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Texas, and Arizona, in all of which the Democrats are likely to show enough strength at least to force the Republicans to commit major resources. So the Buttigieg presidential campaign looks to me very much like a Lockridge-style attempt to escape from personal frustration, not like a serious bid for high office.

Baby Hitler

1_28_cityontheedge

From Planet of Hats  #28, by David Morgan-Mar

From time to time, public interest flares up in a thought experiment invented to illustrate a problem in ethical theory. It’s something utilitarians came up to answer deontologists. Deontologists are ethicists who think that some actions are wrong simply because they are always wrong.  It is supposed to be a comeback in a conversation utilitarians fantasize about having. The deontologist gives “murdering a baby” as an example of an action that is always wrong. The utilitarian comes back with, “What if the baby is Hitler and you’re a time traveler? You could prevent the Holocaust and World War Two by murdering that baby!”

 

To which a wide variety of responses are of course possible. What always gets me about it is the same thing that gets me about utilitarianism generally, which is that it requires people to act on the basis of knowledge which is not in fact available to humans. In order for a utilitarian to know how to act, that utilitarian would have to find himself or herself in some ludicrously improbable situation. The fondness of utilitarians for thought experiments that require the total isolation of the hypothetical from any context is symptomatic, not only of the nature of philosophy as a profession, but also of the impossibility of performing any form of the hedonistic calculus in the circumstances of actual human life.

Bulking large in the context from which this particular experiment requires us to isolate the hypothetical are the implications of the idea that the agent is capable of time travel. I’ve tweeted about this several times. Here is the most recent example:

Other people also think it is silly. Here is a series of short-short stories about Hitler-killing in the form of a Wikipedia talk page. Some excerpts:

At 18:06:59, BigChill wrote:
Take it easy on the kid, SilverFox316; everybody kills Hitler on their first trip. I did. It always gets fixed within a few minutes, what’s the harm?

At 18:33:10, SilverFox316 wrote:
Easy for you to say, BigChill, since to my recollection you’ve never volunteered to go back and fix it. You think I’ve got nothing better to do?

11/16/2104
At 10:15:44, JudgeDoom wrote:
Good news! I just left a French battlefield in October 1916, where I shot dead a young Bavarian Army messenger named Adolf Hitler! Not bad for my first time, no? Sic semper tyrannis!

At 10:22:53, SilverFox316 wrote:
Back from 1916 France I come, having at the last possible second prevented Hitler’s early demise at the hands of JudgeDoom and, incredibly, restrained myself from shooting JudgeDoom and sparing us all years of correcting his misguided antics. READ BULLETIN 1147, PEOPLE!

At 15:41:18, BarracksRoomLawyer wrote:
Point of order: issues related to Hitler’s service in the Bavarian Army ought to go in the World War I forum.

Here’s an SMBC:

hitler killers

I’m particularly fond of this xkcd:

kill_hitler

There’s also some good stuff on the TVTropes page about time travelers killing Hitler.

Our old “Religion” links page

I stopped updating our links pages in 2016 and they stopped attracting comments and views long before that, so there’s no longer any point in having them up in an extra-accessible format. Here is the final state of our “Religion” links page.

Religion

(This page was most recently updated on 10 April 2016)

Academic and journalistic observers of religion:

  • Religion & Politics, “Fit for Polite Company.”  Leans heavily towards progressive Christianity
  • Religion Dispatches, which declares itself to represent “expert opinion, in-depth reporting, and provocative updates from the intersection of religion, politics and culture”;
  • The Revealer, “a daily review of religion & media” from New York University’s journalism department

Christian ethics:

  • Inward/Outward, each day a brief, provocative statement of Christian ethics, drawn from writers past and present;
  • Godthings, similar in concept to Inward/ Outward, but tends to provide longer quotes and more substantive theology;
  • David Hayward, the Naked Pastor, was ordained as a Presbyterian minister but now spends more time drawing cartoons than filling pulpits
  • Sojourners, progressive Christianity explained by progressive Christians who very much want you to know that they are progressive

Anglicans:

Judaism:

Lutherans:

Mormons:

Muslims:

  • The Long Black Veil and Life Within It,”  by Kashmir’s greatest fan of P. G. Wodehouse, Sabbah Haji.  Not exactly about religion, but she will shatter every stereotype you’ve ever had of a hijab-clad Muslim woman;
  • Love, InshAllah, “the Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women”

Orthodox Christianity:

Quakers:

Reformed Church adherents:

Roman Catholics:

Secularists:

*I am fully aware of the irony of both halves of the word “bigshot” as applied to Quakerism

Taxes and Tyranny

One of the very first bits of political writing I ever read on the World Wide Web was this 1996 column from a British libertarian named Jan Clifford Lester. Professor Lester argues that only taxpayers should be allowed to vote. After discussing the slogan “Taxation Without Representation is Tyranny,” he goes on:

This then prompted me to consider the converse proposition: Representation Without Taxation Is Tyranny. It would, of course, be a fallacy to think that this is entailed by the first proposition. But surely it is just as reasonable. It was accepted by most people as a fair limit on the franchise in the mid-nineteenth century. Why should people who are not taxpayers be allowed to vote money away from those who are? If we must have state services, it should at least be for those who pay for them to vote for which services they want and how much they wish to pay. To allow those providing, or living off, the services to vote is like allowing a shopkeeper to vote on what you must buy from him, or a beggar to vote on what you must give him. Naturally, I hear you say, but doesn’t everyone pay tax, at least on goods and services? And so is it not trivially true, insofar as morals can be ‘true’? No, they do not and it is not. Not by a very long chalk.

Professor Lester then differentiates state employees, who are paid out of taxes, from others who are not:

To take a clear case, when a direct state employee, such as a civil servant, receives his salary cheque there will be an apparent deduction for the amount of tax that he pays. As a matter of fact this is a mere book-keeping exercise designed to keep up the pretence that he is a taxpayer along with everyone else. Abandoning this pretence of taxpaying and simply paying him less in the first place would save taxpayers’ money in administration and make the political reality clearer to all.

If a “direct state employee” is merely “a clear case,” what other cases are there?:

So who does not pay taxes and so ought not to have an electoral vote? Judges, state-school teachers, all in local government, state policemen, all in the armed forces, all in prison, all in the NHS, all in the civil service, all employees of the BBC, all the unemployed, all in academia (except, perhaps, in the University of Buckingham), some farmers, some solicitors, maybe some barristers, any employed in businesses that receive tax-subsidies in excess of their tax-payments, and MPs with insufficient taxed market-incomes to cover their salaries. I cannot list them all, but you see the size of the problem. You can also see that there is no class conflict in any quasi-Marxian sense here.

Who, then, does pay taxes? Well — anyone who is left. If you are in any doubt as to which category that you are in then the simple test is to ask yourself whether, in your current position, you would have more purchasing power or less purchasing power if taxation were completely abolished.

That is rather a sweeping list- denying the franchise to “any employed in businesses that receive tax-subsidies in excess of their tax-payments,” for example, would mean that a great many people would have to wait for the results of quite a thoroughgoing audit of their employers before they would know whether they would have a place at the ballot box. And if we take Professor Lester’s “simple test” at face value, no one would be qualified to vote. If “taxation were completely abolished,” taking with it all enforcement of laws, one might expect new obstacles to be put in the path of wealth creation.

Professor Lester reaches his conclusion:

There are some who are on the periphery of net tax-receiving and whom it will not be possible to distinguish with certainty. These people receive most of their income from purchases by state institutions or state employees. The latter is especially hard to be sure of. For instance, those working for The Guardian and New Statesman &Society might just fit this category. But if it is too hard to prove then they might have to be given the benefit of the doubt. Though if the state sector shrinks, due to a new Taxpayer Democracy, then enterprises will decline to the extent that they necessarily depend on indirect state patronage. In the case of the latter two publications I would expect such journals as The Times and The Spectator to expand to replace them.

In view of the percentage of economic activity in modern societies that “purchases by state institutions and state employees” represent, one rather doubts that even The Spectator would pass this test.

And why stop there? If the employees of The New Statesman are disfranchised because most of their subscribers are net tax recipients, why should employees of the bar across the street from the offices of The New Statesman retain the right to vote? And if those workers are classified as net tax recipients because most of their income is derived from purchases made by net tax recipients, shouldn’t any purchases they make, and any purchase the bar makes, also be classified as a transfer of tax monies? Follow those knock-ons far enough, and again we come to a scenario in which voting is abolished altogether.

Moreover, while there are various schools of thought which propose that in a well-ordered society the laws defining those relationships among people which we call “property” could be written in a way that would reflect some moral reality given in nature, the radicalism of Professor Lester’s proposal would suggest that he does not believe that the UK has attained a particularly high level of justice. So, how can he consider any corporation chartered and regulated by the British state, even if the voting shares of that corporation’s stock are held by private individuals, to be less than suspect?

And what of tax recipients in other countries?  To return to his examples of The New Statesman and The Guardian, while it may in 1996 have been the case that both of these publications derived most of their revenue from net recipients of UK taxes, two thirds of  The Guardian’s revenue now comes from readers outside the UK, half of them in the United States. Few of these readers are in the pay of the British state, but it is possible that most of them are net tax recipients in their own countries. If so, would employees of The Guardian still be disqualified from voting in Britain because they are indirect recipients of US tax dollars?

Nor is that the only implication. Professor Lester is surely right that our conception of taxpaying is too narrow if it is simply limited to figures that appear on ledgers. I would not defend the idea that the line on a state employee’s pay stub indicating that some number of pounds or dollars has been deducted from his or her gross pay represents actual taxpaying. On the other hand, his conception of tax-receiving is just as narrow as this. So in the USA, profitable corporations pay their shareholders far less in dividends, and their executives far more in compensation, than do their counterparts in other advanced countries. This is largely the result of the US corporate income tax, under which companies pay taxes on money they distribute as dividends but not on money they pay to executives. Therefore, a rational analysis of taxes in the USA should classify as tax payments all compensation executives receive in excess of what their counterparts receive in countries with different tax regimes. That analysis would reveal that many of the individuals who are in the habit of regarding themselves as the USA’s greatest taxpayers are in fact net recipients of tax dollars. Professor Lester would have to deny them the franchise as well.

In fact, Professor Lester’s proposal might have some rather amusing consequences if applied to the USA. Not only executive compensation, but interest payments are also deductible from the corporate income tax. That encourages US firms to take on far more debt than do their counterparts in other countries. Those debt levels in turn give rise to the private equity sector, the “corporate raiders” who sometimes make such a big splash in the business pages. If we classify them as net tax recipients and on that account deprive them of the vote, we would suddenly have a bunch of disfranchised billionaires and centi-millionaires running about. I confess that I would find it difficult to refrain from laughing out loud if corporate raider-turned-politico Willard “Mitt” Romney were to lose the right to vote.

What brought this old column to my mind was an essay that popped up in my Twitter feed this morning, a 2017 piece by philosopher Philip Goff. Professor Goff begins with the observation that right-wing libertarians who denounce all taxation as theft are only the most extreme advocates of a widespread notion, the notion that what is listed on pay stubs and other accounting instruments as a payee’s pre-tax income is property to which that payee is morally entitled.  Again, this is the fallacy that Professor Lester identified, equating taxpaying with ledger items rather than with the actual allocation of resources.

Professor Goff writes:

Your gross, or pre-tax income, is the money the market delivers to you. In what sense might it be thought that you have a moral claim on this money? One answer might be that you deserve it: you have worked hard and have done a good job, and consequently you deserve all your gross income as recompense for your labour. According to this line of reasoning, when the government taxes, it takes the money that you deserve for the work you do.

This is not a plausible view. For it implies that the market distributes to people exactly what they deserve for the work that they do. But nobody thinks a hedge-fund manager deserves many times more wealth than a scientist working on a cure for cancer, and few would think that current pay ratios in companies reflect what philosophers call desert claims. Probably you work very hard in your job, and you make an important contribution. But then so do most people, and the market distribution of wealth patently does not reward in proportion to how hard-working people are, or how much of a contribution they make to society. If we were just focusing on desert, then there is a good case for taxation to correct the amoral distribution of the market.

If we have a moral claim on our gross income, it is not because we deserve it, but because we are entitled to it. What’s the difference? What you deserve is what you ought to have as a result of hard work or social contribution; what you are entitled to is the result of your property rights. Libertarians believe that each individual has natural property rights, which it would be immoral for the government to infringe. According to Right-wing libertarians such as Robert Nozick and Murray Rothbard, taxation is morally wrong not because the taxman takes what people deserve, but because he takes what people have a right to.

Therefore, if taxation is theft, it’s because it essentially involves the violation of people’s natural rights to property. But do we really have natural rights to property? And even if we do, does taxation really infringe them? To begin to address these questions, we need to think more carefully about the nature of property.

Professor Goff distinguishes between three schools of thought. Right libertarians hold that all things that have value to humans gained that value because someone discovered those things and by his or her labor created that value. For them, it is a truth inherent in the structure of the world that each individual has inalienable right to possess the fruits of his or her labor. Property law represents an attempt to tease out the moral facts that make up this truth. Property law must therefore recognize ownership as a relationship between a particular person and a particular object, and it must prohibit all other persons from interfering with this relationship.

Left libertarians agree that property law is just if and only if it teases out moral facts about the relationship between people and things. However, they do not accept that these facts are as Right libertarians say they are. Rather, they believe that it is unjust for any one person to lay exclusive claim to nature. At its most extreme, Left libertarianism proscribes ownership of anything other than one’s own body. At its most modest, it lays down rules enjoining requirements for sharing what one does own, and insisting on joint responsibility among members of a community for the use of the resources under their control.

Opposed to both varieties of libertarians are the social constructivists. Professor Goff summarizes their views thus:

Libertarians believe that property rights are natural, reflecting basic moral facts about the world. Others hold that property rights are merely legal, social constructions, which are created by us and can be shaped to suit our purposes. We can call the latter view ‘social constructivism’ about property. (Please note, our focus here is specifically on social constructivism about property; we are not considering a more general position according to which morality as a whole is a social construction.)

To bring out the difference, ask yourself: ‘Which comes first: facts about property or facts about property law?’ For the social constructivist, the right to property is not some natural, sacred thing that exists independently of human conventions and legal practices. Rather, we create property rights, by setting up legal institutions to ensure that people have certain legal rights over the material world. For the libertarian, in contrast, facts about property exist independently of human laws and conventions, and indeed human laws and conventions ought to be moulded to respect the natural right to property.

This distinction is crucial for our question. Suppose we accept the social-constructivist view that property rights are merely legal. Now we ask the question: ‘Do I have a moral claim on the entirety of my pre-tax income?’ We cannot argue that I am entitled to my pre-tax income on the basis of my natural property rights, as there are no such things as ‘natural’ property rights (according to the social-constructivist position we are now considering). So, if I have a moral claim on my entire pre-tax income, this must be because it is exactly the amount of money I deserve for my hard work and social contribution, presumably because in general the market delivers to each person exactly what they deserve. But we have already concluded that this is not a plausible claim. Without the belief in natural property rights, existing independent of human laws and conventions, there is no way to make sense of the idea that the deliverances of the market are inherently just, and hence no way to make sense of the idea that each person’s gross income (which is just the income the market delivers to them) is hers by right.

Here’s where we’re up to: to make sense of the idea that taxation is (moral) theft, we have to make sense of the idea that each person has a moral claim on the entirety of her gross income, and this can be made sense of only if property rights are natural rather than mere human constructions.

Further:

As already discussed, social constructivists do not deny the existence of property rights, rather they take them to be social or legal constructions, which humans are free to shape to reflect what they deem valuable. Jesus declared that ‘The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.’ Analogously, for the social constructivist, property rights are made to serve human interests and not vice versa.

It is plausible that human flourishing requires certain legally protected rights to property, and hence most social constructivists will advocate a system of property rights. At the same time, there are other things of value – perhaps equality, perhaps reward for hard work and/or social contribution (which as we have seen is not well-protected by the market) – and in order to promote these other values, most social constructivists propose making property rights conditional on the payment of taxes. In the absence of pre-existing natural property rights, there is no moral reason to respect the market distribution of wealth (there will of course be pragmatic, economic reason, but that is another matter).

Professor Goff argues that Right libertarianism fails at two points. First, it cannot answer the basic claims of Left libertarianism, and so fails at the outset. Second, even if we choose to overlook this failing, it can defend the idea that gross income is a measure of special moral importance if and only if it can demonstrate that the market is operating in its best possible state, in no way distorted by political intervention. As this claim would leave Right libertarians without much of anything else to say, they would seem unlikely to adopt it.

I would like to add one point to Professor Goff’s description of social constructivism. Many years ago, I studied the legal codes of ancient Rome. I can’t say that much stuck with me from that study, but one thing I remember very clearly is that every time the ancients said they had “rights” they specified against whom they had those rights.  That is to say, rights were definitions of what was and what was not allowed in particular relationships among people. The concept of rights is simply not relevant to relationships between people and inanimate objects.

A property right describes, not what may happen between a person and a thing s/he owns, but among various people who might encounter that thing. That’s why I can’t kick your door down, but a police officer with the proper warrant can. Your ownership of your door gives you rights against me that it doesn’t give you against the agents of law enforcement. Likewise with the various actions allowed a tenant and a landlord with regard to the same location. Or for that matter, with regard to the right of free speech a citizen may have against the state, as opposed to the rights that same citizens might have against the owners of a social media platform with terms and conditions specifying that they can “terminate your account at any time, for any reason or no reason.” You may be able to challenge their particular exercise of that right in court, but if so it isn’t because you have the same right against them that you have against the state. Rather, it is because there are rights built into the law of contract that sometimes override particular provisions parties may write into a particular agreement.

It seems to me that the social constructivist view of property law is obviously right, and that the both varieties of libertarian are simply being childish. If you disagree, well, there is a comment section.

Our old “Politics” links page

I just looked at our page of links under the title “Politics” and found that it hasn’t been updated since August 2016. There are a number of sites linked there that have been deleted, many that have stopped updating, some that were maintained by people who have since died (Rest in Peace, Will Grigg and Sir Brian Barder.) So I don’t suppose there is much point in leaving it as a page. Here is its final state:

Politics

(This page was most recently updated 3 August 2016)

Feel free to use the comments to suggest other sites we should link on this page, especially to lighten the heavy predominance of USA-focused sites.

Political science and campaign news:

  1. 538, statistical analysis of poll results and sporting events;
  2. The Monkey Cage, political scientists maintain a group blog at The Washington Post;
  3. Politico, news and speculation from the USA’s campaign trail;
  4. Real Clear Politics, indispensable aggregator of US campaign news;

Left:

  1. Abagond, 1966-style black nationalist;
  2. The Angry Arab News Service, “a source on politics, war, the Middle East, Arabic poetry, and art”;
  3. The Arabist, what’s going on in places where Arabic is the main language;
  4. The Baffler, which doesn’t want you to be a sucker;
  5. Box Turtle Bulletin, what happens when members of sexual minorities demand their rights;
  6. Carolyn Gage points out that sexual violence does in fact matter in the lives of women and in the structure of society;
  7. Center for a Stateless Society, anarchists who say that treason is no crime, but war is;
  8. Counterpunch, tells the facts and names the names;
  9. Crooks and Liars, tells you that’s what right-wing politicians are, crooks and liars, all of them;
  10. Current Affairs, which has “two missions: to produce the world’s first readable political publication and to make life joyful again”;
  11. Digby’s Hullabaloo, an outlet for Americans frustrated that the center-left isn’t particularly effective in US politics;
  12. Eschaton, the venerable;
  13. Evonomics, argues that economics is a field in transition, and that the new economics will be attuned to reality than was the old;
  14. the Field Negro, for whom “silence is never golden”;
  15. The Intercept, unmasking militarism;
  16. Juan Cole, “Informed Comment” on the Middle East and Central Asia;
  17. Mondoweiss, mostly about Israel/ Palestine;
  18. More Crows Than Eagles, where Anne Amnesia tells the truth about not getting by in America;
  19. Naked Capitalism, left-wing economic views;
  20. The Nation, premier magazine of the US left;
  21. Sadly, No!,  showing that political satire is not necessary when you can just quote American rightists;
  22. Secretly Radical, calls for the abolition of gender;
  23. Spectre, “as Radical as Reality”;
  24. Spocko’s Brain, which is not Morg, and is not Eymorg (or so I would advise youse);
  25. Stop Imperialism, “stands in opposition to the forces of empire and finance which seek to dominate the word through both overt and covert means”; 
  26. ThinkProgress, popular center-left news aggregator;
  27. TomDispatch, “a regular antidote to the mainstream media”;
  28. Truthdig, “drilling beneath the headlines”;
  29. the Utne blog
  30. War is a Crime, say David Swanson and his friends

Right:

  1. Acculturated, young right-of-center authors, most of them apparently Roman Catholic, all of them clearly exasperated that Western pop culture is dominated by people who refuse to grow the Hell up;
  2. Ace of Spades, where they’ve decided they’re done caring about things so they’re just going to root for Donald Trump;
  3. American Affairs, what Trumpism might become if thought through with patience and wisdom
  4. The American Conservative‘s blog section;
  5. Anti-Gnostic, who is at least as fiercely reactionary in his opinions on politicsreligion, and economics as was his hero, philosopher Eric Voegelin, but is much more readable than Voegelin ever was;
  6. The Beacon, a group blog from the libertarian Independent Institute;
  7. The Federalist, center-right web magazine;
  8. Front Porch Republic, sets out to build a sane conservatism based on the virtue of “placefulness”;
  9. William Norman Grigg’s Pro Libertate, libertarianism with a distinctly African-American inflection;
  10. The Imaginative Conservative, “a forum for those who seek the True, the Good, and the Beautiful”;
  11. Justin Raimondo, libertarian editor of antiwar.com, inhabits the place where the Old Right meets the New Left;
  12. Kathy Shaidle, right-wing Canadian, is Five Feet of Fury;
  13. Mapping the Dark Enlightenment, links to the most influential neoreactionary sites;
  14. Michael Brendan Dougherty at The Week; 
  15. The Mitrailleuse, libertarians all of whom value and most of whom practice religion;
  16. The New American, voice of the John Birch Society, a group so conspicuously crazy that it can occasionally get away with being inconspicuously sane;
  17. Peter Hitchens is convinced that British voters would rally to support a conservative party, if only the Conservative Party would disband;
  18. Public Discourse, right-wing Roman Catholics;
  19. Social Matter, which says it is “Not your grandfather’s conservatism,” though some of us had some pretty weird grandfathers…
  20. Spiked, hard-edged libertarians with a technophile side;
  21. Spotted Toad, wishes the bourgeoisie would stop sowing the seeds of its own destruction;
  22. Steve Sailer– I know, I know, but he posts lots of interesting stuff;
  23. Street Carnage, from Gavin McInnes and others;
  24. Taki’s Magazine, if you’re a bien-pensant sort, you’ll need your smelling salts handy if you take a look at it;
  25. Twitchy, a poorly designed homepage, badly thought through politics, brilliantly funny about exactly the forms of left-wing behavior that lefties themselves find exasperating

Center:

  1. The Archdruid, who doesn’t see a future in industrial capitalism or the conventional Left that claims to oppose it;
  2. Brian Barder, a retired diplomat who may well be the most polite blogger on the web;
  3. Club Orlov, where “collapsitarian” Dmitry Orlov explains why the modern world is doomed and wonders why the very people who are doing the most to hasten its collapse are the ones who are least willing to admit that their efforts are bearing fruit;
  4. Clusterfuck Nation, by James Howard Kunstler;
  5. Crooked Timber, by authors who may all be of similar political persuasions, but whose academic research leads them in surprising directions;
  6. Damon Linker of The Week;
  7. Duck of Minerva, “world politics from an academic perspective,” and sometimes academic politics from a global perspective;
  8. Ernest F. Hollings, Acilius’ favorite former US Senator (formerly his favorite US Senator);
  9. Fredrik deBoer, wants a “Left that can win,” which means he’s a persistent critic of the Left we seem to be stuck with;
  10. Head of Legal, the UK’s Carl Gardner tells us what the law says about various controversies of the day;
  11. Heterodox Academy, argues that American academics have become so uniform in their political views that the prevailing ideology is now a severe impediment to their intellectual lives;
  12. Language Log‘s section on “Language and Politics“;
  13. LobeLog, “investigative journalism and critical expert perspectives on US foreign policy, especially regarding Iran and the greater Middle East”;
  14. Pat Lang, a retired colonel who knows a lot of stuff;
  15. The Saker, who declares that “Russia Stands for Freedom!,” which I suppose is why he lives in Iceland;
  16. Slate Star Codex, skeptical about the power of reason in human affairs;
  17. Stumbling and Mumbling, in which Chris Dillow claims to be “an extremist, not a fanatic”;
  18. The Volokh Conspiracy, a project begun by right-wing legal scholars, has moved to the Washington Post and lost some of that focus

Democrats and Republicans:

  1. David Stockman‘s Contra Corner;
  2. Echidne of the Snakes, diehard Obama loyalist with a formidable blogroll;
  3. The Huffington Post, founded by someone who named her cat “Puffington Huffington” and made a vast fortune off people’s willingness to give her content for free; 
  4. Kevin Drum, who beats steadily for the Dems;
  5. Michael Barone, Republican political analyst;
  6. Mickey Kaus, who dislikes unions because they drive up wages, and dislikes immigration because it drives down wages;
  7. Pollways, political scientist Amy Fried analyzes opinion trends in and out of the state of Maine ;
  8. Vox‘s “Policy and Politics” section;
  9. The Weekly Standard‘s Daily Standard;
  10. Wonkette, politics for people with dirty minds