Never attribute to strategic thought what can be adequately explained by mindless impulse

In the USA, physical attacks on such right-wing figures as Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Gavin McInnes and their supporters have brought those men so much publicity, and have done so much to embarrass and divide their left-wing opponents, that many suspect that the ostensible targets of these attacks in fact arranged them. Former US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has expounded this theory on his blog and on television:

Many degrees to Mr Reich’s left, Mike Whitney of Counterpunch considers the theory that the Berkeley incident was a set-up and is more cautious. Mr Whitney’s concern is that these events, whatever their origin, may provide just the cover our new philosopher-king needs to install an authoritarian state:

Trump’s governing style… is geared to deepen divisions, increase social unrest, and create enemies, real or imagined.  In this view, Berkeley was just a dry run, an experiment in perception management orchestrated to sharpen Trump’s image as the hair-trigger Biblical father who will intercede whenever necessary and who is always ready to impose justice with an iron fist.

So the masked rioters actually did Trump a favor, didn’t they? They created a justification for presidential intervention backed by the prospect of direct involvement. One can only wonder how many similar experiments will transpire before Trump puts his foot down and bans demonstrations altogether?

Of course, that may very well be the objective.

It is true that Mr Yiannopoulos, as an editor of the website for which Don John of Astoria’s Chief Strategist was for several years the Executive Chairman, is associated with people whose favorite tactic is tricking left of center types into saying horrible things, and plenty of left of center types have responded to these events by going on social media to gloat about a woman being pepper-sprayed in the face, a Starbucks being demolished, etc. So there is at least a measure of plausibility to the idea that the masked men who did those things when Mr Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak may have been his agents, and even to the idea that they may have been dirty tricksters with links to the White House. Plausibility isn’t evidence, so we oughtn’t to get excited, but it’s an idea to take note of.

As for Richard Spencer, someone who will do and say the kinds of things he has been doing and saying for the last nine years might do pretty nearly anything to get attention. Arranging to have himself punched in the face on television might be a pathetic cry for help, but a considerably less extreme version of the pathetic cry for help than was, for example, his decision to publish articles dwelling on the potential upsides of killing all black people. And Mr Spencer was also rewarded with vast publicity and confusion among his opponents for his minor discomfort. So again, while there may not be evidence or even presumption of evidence that Mr Spencer and his assailant may have been acting in collusion, neither is there a strong prima facie case against the idea.

I would put Gavin McInnes is a different category than Mr Yiannopoulos or Mr Spencer. Despite his efforts to market the phrase “Proud Boys” as a label for his followers, I do not believe that Mr McInnes actually has any followers. Readers, yes, he has many of those; I regularly read him myself, since he’s as funny as he is nasty (that makes him very funny.) But 11 people were arrested last week at the scene of the disturbance at New York University where Mr McInnes was pepper-sprayed in the face and several other people were assaulted; none of those people seems to have been likely to take direction from him, or for that matter from Mr Yiannopoulos or any other right-wing trickster, and I do not believe for one second that there are 11 people in the world who would agree to be arrested for Mr McInnes’ sake, let alone that he could assemble that number in one place.

If the goal of those who perpetrated these acts of violence was to trick left-leaning people into cheering them on, thereby making them look ridiculous and disgusting, they succeeded. Video of Kiara Robles being pepper-sprayed in the face while she tried to assemble her thoughts in defense of Mr Yiannopoulos’ appearance was shared many thousands of times on social media, often with gloating remarks. I’ve been surprised at people I know, who last year were lecturing everyone in sight about the terrible dangers that would face the social order if we rejected the preferred presidential candidate of Goldman Sachs and the CIA and embraced such wild-eyed revolutionaries as Bernie Sanders or Jill Stein, who today are extolling the virtues of the Black Bloc and jeering at those who doubt the necessity of political violence.

Nor is it only those on the left who are willing to believe that these actions will damage the causes that men like Mr Yiannopoulos, Mr Spencer, and Mr McInnes promote. As those who openly gloat over this violence and call for more of it are showing us the power of the hormonal rush that comes to fans when they watch their team attack the opposing team in their favorite sport, so there are those on the far right who believe that their failure to make the world work the way they think it ought to work is a symptom of the left’s use of such tactics. Steve Sailer has catered to this sort of thinking in several blog posts (for example, here and here,) though he himself has been careful to limit the number of factual claims to which he commits himself.

Paul Gottfried, a distinguished scholar who had the misfortune to be associated with Richard Spencer before Mr Spencer decided to go Nazi, suspects that violent efforts to suppress far-right speech may succeed, not in ending the careers of its ostensible targets, but in creating a general sense that the country is going out of control and thereby undermining confidence in its elected leaders, most of whom are right of center. While Mr Gottfried, unlike his least-favorite former student, is someone to be taken seriously, I would argue that he too has fallen prey to the thrills of partisanship. There was far more unrest on college campuses in the USA during Richard Nixon’s first term as president than there was during the Johnson-Humphrey administration; that unrest not only failed to stop Mr Nixon gaining a second term in one of the most lopsided election results in history, but it may well have contributed to that win. Indeed, incumbent governors and mayors whose jurisdictions saw heavy unrest did well throughout those years, provided they were seen as taking the toughest possible law and order stand. California governor Ronald Reagan, Maryland governor Spiro Agnew, Los Angeles mayor Sam Yorty, Chicago mayor Richard Daley, and Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo all benefited enormously from this kind of thing. Mr Gottfried knows this history well, and I can only suspect that his wish to cheerlead for dynamic action by his side has blinded him to its lessons.

If there are thousands, even millions, of people who are so caught up in the Go Blue! Go Red! cheering match to think that these actions somehow hurt the far right, then it is hard to doubt that there are a couple of dozen who are ready to put their fists and their Bear Mace where their Retweet buttons are. I am reminded of “Hanlon’s Razor,” the rule of analysis dictating that we should “Never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity.” Of course the acts of violence against Ms Robles, Mr McInnes, etc, are malicious deeds, but we are not justified in assuming that the people who perpetrated those deeds were thinking strategically. Therefore we are not justified in believing that those perpetrators realized that their actions would help the far right and harm those whom the far right targets, however obvious that fact may be to everyone who isn’t carried away with left/ right team spirit. That’s why, in the title of this post, I rephrase Hanlon’s Razor as “Never attribute to strategic thought what can be adequately explained by mindless impulse.”

What is a “political opinion”?

On the radio yesterday, I heard a man interviewed who had recently lost his job at the US Department of State. The man said that “It is not the job of the State Department to give political opinions.”This struck me as an odd thing to say; after all, the State Department’s primary function is to provide channels of communication between US policymakers and their counterparts in other countries and to augment its reports to US policymakers with expert knowledge preparing them to respond to decisions their counterparts are likely to make. That sounds like activity that falls entirely within the realm of “giving political opinions.”

Now in fairness, it is the case that the phrase “political opinion” has several senses. I’ve divided these into a few subcategories and listed several under each subcategory:

A. Affiliation signals:

  1. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s affiliation with a particular group and to intimidate members of other groups into silence.
  2. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s affiliation with a particular group and to persuade members of other groups to join that group.
  3. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s affiliation with a particular group and to invite members of other groups to negotiate a new relationship between the groups.
  4. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s affiliation with a particular group and to reassure members of other groups that the speaker is content with the existing relationship between the groups.
  5. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s affiliation with a particular group and to confront members of other groups with the speaker’s willingness to support increased hostility towards their groups.
  6. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s affiliation with a particular group and to offer that group’s surrender to another group.
  7. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s break from a particular group with which s/he was previously affiliated and to request membership in another group.
  8. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s break from a particular group with which s/he was previously affiliated and to offer him/herself as a mediator between that group and another group.
  9. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s break from a particular group with which s/he was previously affiliated and to indicate that s/he would like to be recruited for membership by multiple other groups.

B. Ideological confessions

  1. A statement meant to explain the speaker’s ideological commitments to an audience who may not be aware of them.
  2. A statement meant to persuade the speaker’s audience to adopt the speaker’s ideological commitments.
  3. A statement made by a person who is unaware that his or her ideological commitments are specific to people of his or her historical description, and who believes that the statement is just plain common sense.

C. Game analysis

  1. A statement forecasting the likely outcomes of a given conflict.
  2. A statement listing the considerations that votes or policymakers are likely to take into account as they reach their decisions, and predicting the relative importance they are likely to attach to each of these considerations.

D. Historical discussion

  1. A statement identifying one past situation as a better analogy than another for illuminating a given situation in the present.
  2. A statement affirming the familiar interpretation of a past situation that has been admitted as an analogy for illuminating a given situation in the present.
  3. A statement challenging the familiar interpretation of a past situation that has been admitted as an analogy for illuminating a given situation in the present.

What I first thought of when I was listening to the recently unemployed career diplomat were political opinions in categories C and D. If the State Department isn’t giving policymakers opinions of those kinds, it’s time to wind the whole thing down and save the taxpayers a lot of money.

I suspect what the man had in mind were categories A and B. Indeed, category A statements should never be necessary; any policymaker worth his or her salt should be able, in  a few minutes, to discern without being told what group affiliations and ideological commitments are likely to inform a given speaker’s thinking, especially if that speaker belongs to a type that is as familiar as the career foreign service officer.

Category B statements should be necessary only in those cases where the world situation is changing so rapidly and comprehensively that the established doctrines have become irrelevant and new doctrines are needed in short order; the classic example would be the “Long Telegrams” that George Kennan and Frank Roberts sent at the inception of the Cold War.

What I couldn’t help but suspect, however, is that the man on the radio had been on the job too long. I’m sure the leaders of the new administration in Washington thought so. While those leaders are people in whose judgment I would normally place absolutely no confidence whatever, the longer I listened to him the more strongly I found myself wondering whether they might be right in this case, whether he might be offering statements of type B3 (“A statement made by a person who is unaware that his or her ideological commitments are specific to people of his or her historical description, and who believes that the statement is just plain common sense.”) If, as it seemed, he had spent his entire youth preparing to work in the foreign service, then had spent his entire adult life actually in the foreign service, it would hardly be surprising if he were to believe that he was expressing the common sense of humanity when he was in fact presenting views peculiar to that profession.

 

 

 

At war with the Gray Goo

Several days ago, a man named Richard Spencer was on camera, finding artful ways to respond to questions as to whether he is an advocate of genocidal violence against black people (by the way, he is very much an advocate of genocidal violence against black people.)  While he did his shtick, a masked person ran up, punched him in the face, and ran off.

punch.gif

You might think that a minor physical assault on a minor public nuisance would figure in the news as, at most, a single line on the police blotter. Yet people are still talking about it. Today, Freddie deBoer, Rod Dreher, and The Nation magazine all weighed in on this incident.

I tweeted about it the other day:

And pretty healthy odds at that; Spencer’s only job is to get publicity, and with this incident he has gained a tremendous amount of that, as he recently gloated when reached for comment by The Independent.

Since people are still talking about this, I’ll add a bit to that tweet. Street-fighting is one area where Nazis have consistently enjoyed success. To meet them on that ground is to play to their strengths.

That isn’t to say that Spencer commands a street-fighting force; he doesn’t. His followers are guys on the internet, the proverbial fat guy living in his mother’s basement.  “Failsons,” as Chapo Trap House calls them.   Those guys aren’t likely to be much use in a street fight. Nor can they attract support from people who have not already given up on life.

The threat they pose is like the danger people used to talk about regarding nanotechnology.  One tiny machine might impose only a very small ecological cost, but as the number of these in use multiplies, it becomes conceivable that they might collectively cause a very large amount of environmental damage.  In a worst case scenario, a vast number of nanobots might coalesce into a “Gray Goo” that would render the surface of the earth uninhabitable. The Failsons at their keyboards have, figuratively speaking, coalesced into blobs of destructive goo.

Failson blobs floating around a bloodthirsty racist like Spencer stink up the comments sections of blogs and other social media platforms. That isn’t such a problem in itself; it’s easy enough to ban commenters, as I have had occasion to demonstrate to some of you.  Where Spencer’s following has the most potential to do harm is illustrated by something like Gamergate. A few years ago a Failson blob of gamers set out to harass three or four women who had been making a marginal living writing online about video-games. They succeeded in making their lives miserable, and probably did a great deal to discourage other women from getting into gaming journalism. Spencer’s crowd would certainly be capable of targeting particular members of groups they don’t like (blacks, Jews, women, Muslims, etc, etc, etc, ad infinitum, ad nauseam) and doing the same damage to their lives that the gamers did to Zoë Quinn, Brianna Wu, and Anita Sarkeesian, while intimidating other members of the same groups into silence.

To stick with the Gamergate analogy a moment longer, “Gray Goo” isn’t just a pejorative in discussing them. Supporters of the harassment of Quinn, Wu. and Sarkeesian called themselves a variety of names, including “the Grey Rebellion” and, most commonly, “Shitlords.” So if I were talking only about them, I might use the phrase “Gray Shit” rather than “Gray Goo.”

Punching people in the street isn’t going to drive the Failsons into hiding; as the trope about them living in their mothers’ basements indicates, they have been in hiding their entire lives. However, it will give Spencer and people like him an opportunity to recruit guys who like to express their hostilities, not by persecuting people from behind a computer screen, but in physical combat. Once they get a group of street-fighters going, that’s a whole new population from which they can draw support. And while street-fighters are as much a low-status population as are the couch-bound Failsons, physically violent people attract a following in ways that people whose aggressions are electronic do not. That’s why skinheads were a thing thirty years ago, to the point where there were anti-Nazi skinheads who would spend Friday nights fighting pro-Nazi skinheads.

The original Nazis, remember, kept going throughout all their electoral ups and downs in the 1920s as a street-fighting group. When the global economy collapsed at the end of that decade, Germany’s elite found that the only way they could restore public order and keep their positions was to put Hitler in charge. Hitler’s ascent had many pre-conditions; Germany’s defeat in World War War One, the mindlessly vengeful policies the victorious powers inflicted on Germany from November 1918 to January 1933, and the Great Depression were all bigger contributors to his rise than was the fact that he had an effective street-fighting force at his disposal. But that street-fighting force was certainly one of the contributors, and when I see leftists expressing pleasure at an event which, if it to have any consequence at all, can only have the consequence of building a street-fighting force loyal to Richard Spencer, I hope that the Trump years will not bring the kind of misery to the USA that the years of the Weimar Republic brought to Germany.

Tyrannos

A tweet from this morning:

Here’s the video I’m talking about:

The biggest howler comes right at the beginning, when he says that Plato’s Republic is “the first book about politics ever written.” In fact, The Republic wasn’t even Plato’s first book about politics, never mind the first one ever written. That’s an ironic mistake, since the passage of the Republic summarized in this video includes a significant reworking of material from a political tract that predates the Republic by at least 40 and more probably 60 years, the so-called “Constitution of the Athenians” by an unknown author who may or may not have been named Xenophon (though he certainly was not the famous Xenophon, as once was thought.)  The text and its author are customarily referred to as “the Old Oligarch.” The Old Oligarch is very probably oldest surviving specimen of Greek prose, though even it is very unlikely to be “the first book about politics ever written”- the vast majority of written works produced in the mid-fifth century BCE must have been lost sometime before the fourth century BCE. The likelihood that any given work written in those days would survive until 2017 CE is trivial.

At any rate, the Old Oligarch is a quick read; it takes about 10-15 minutes to read the whole thing. When I was in school, my Greek professors were at something of a loss to think of a contemporary critic of democracy with whom they could compare him, someone who combined his extreme opposition to popular government with his concise and witty writing. They usually ended up going back several decades and comparing him to H. L. Mencken.  Nowadays the internet has brought us the anti-democratic bloggers who call themselves “Neoreactionaries” or “the Dark Enlightenment”; those writers may sometimes be witty, but they are rarely concise.  And frankly, few of them have much to say that the Old Oligarch didn’t say in those 15 minutes sometime around 445 BCE.

 

Celebrity deaths in 2016, revisited

On 21 April 2016, I posted a list of celebrities whose deaths during the first 112 days of the year had been noted on Wikipedia and whose names I recognized.*  As the year has gone on, more and more people have remarked on the number of well-known people who have died in 2016. Maybe that’s because television and transistor radios became widespread in the 1960s, making a larger than usual number of people famous who are now in their old age. Or maybe it is because social media has led people to share more news about the deaths of their favorite celebrities. Or maybe it’s an illusion, and the sheer act of complaining about celebrity deaths has become a fashion. Or maybe something else is going on altogether.

I suppose one way to figure out if 2016 really has been deadlier for the famous than most years would be to take the number of people born in the last 80 years who have articles devoted to them on Wikipedia, divide by 80, and compare the result with the number of “Deaths in 2016” on the site.  Repeat that procedure for each of the previous 20 years; for example, you would compare the number of “Deaths in 1996” to the number of people born between 1916 and 1996. I’m not going to do that, but someone could.

That might be better than just comparing the length of “Deaths in 2016” to the length of Wikipedia’s other necrology sections, for two reasons. First, the rate at which Wikipedia acquires new articles is not constant from year to year; for example, it seems that the site used to be much stricter about its “notability” requirements. A person still alive in, let’s say, 2016 might have been much likelier to qualify to be the subject of an article than would an equally notable person who died in 2009.  Second, just because the “Come ON, 2016!” thing has been so widespread, obituaries have been getting a lot of attention, so more people than usual might have had articles added immediately after their deaths. For example, master chef Peng Chang-kuei’s Wikipedia article was created the day after his obituary appeared in the papers, as was art historian Yuri Bychkov‘s.

Anyway, here’s the list from April. Some of the links lead to obituaries, some lead to still photos, some to videos of them at work, some to other kinds of things:

  1. Prince, musician
  2. Guy Hamilton, filmmaker known for the James Bond films
  3. Victoria Wood, comedian
  4. Chyna, professional wrestler
  5. Milt Pappas, baseball player
  6. Billy Redmayne, motorcycle racer
  7. Pete Zorn, musician
  8. Duane Clarridge, highly publicized secret agent
  9. Yuri Bychkov, art historian with a name that makes teenage boys laugh
  10. Doris Roberts, actor who appeared frequently on Barney Milleramong other things
  11. David Gest, man who married Liza Minnelli
  12. Ed Snider, hockey team owner
  13. Howard Marks, marijuana smuggler
  14. William Hamilton, cartoonist
  15. Jimmie Van Zant, musician
  16. Merle Haggard, musician
  17. Ogden Phipps, horse breeder
  18. Antonin Scalia, jurist
  19. Henry Harpending, anthropologist
  20. Patty Duke, actor
  21. James Noble, actor who was in the movie 1776
  22. Winston Moseley, serial killer
  23. Mother Angelica, nun
  24. Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores, military strongman
  25. Lester Thurow, economist
  26. Garry Shandling, comedian
  27. Nicholas Scoppetta, civil servant
  28. Tibor Machan, philosopher
  29. Earl Hamner, screenwriter
  30. Maggie Blye, actor whose films included 1969’s The Italian Job
  31. Tom Whedon, screenwriter
  32. Ken Howard, actor who was in the movie 1776
  33. Joe Garagiola, baseball player, media personality
  34. Rob Ford, mayor who openly committed crimes while in office
  35. Joe Santos, actor
  36. Bandar bin Saud bin Abdulaziz al Saud, nobleman
  37. Ralph Abernathy III, politician and son of a more famous man
  38. Frank Sinatra Jr., musician and son of a more famous man
  39. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, musician
  40. Martin Olav Sabo, politician
  41. Hilary Putnam, philosopher
  42. Louise Plowright, actor
  43. Pat Conroy, novelist
  44. Ben Bagdikian, reporter
  45. Anita Brookner, writer
  46. Ken Adam, set designer known for, among many other things, Guy Hamilton’s Bond films
  47. Sir George Martin, record producer
  48. Wally Bragg, footballer
  49. Paul Ryan, cartoonist
  50. Nancy Reagan, political spouse
  51. George Kennedy, actor
  52. Douglas Slocombe, cinematographer whose films included 1969’s The Italian Job
  53. Peter Mondavi, wine mogul
  54. Harper Lee, novelist
  55. Umberto Eco, philosopher and novelist
  56. Humbert Allen Astredo, actor known for parts in Dark Shadows
  57. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, diplomat
  58. Edgar Mitchell, astronaut turned crazy person
  59. Bob Elliott, comedian
  60. Buddy Cianci, mayor who openly committed crimes while in office
  61. Abe Vigoda, actor known for parts in Dark Shadows (where he played a character named “Ezra Braithwaite,” no relation to Guyanese diplomat/ author E. R. Braithwaite or Grenadian statesman Nicholas Braithwaite, both of whom also died this year,) and Barney Miller, among many other things
  62. Marvin Minsky, prophet of AI
  63. Cecil Parkinson, politician
  64. Dan Haggerty, actor
  65. Sylvan Barnet, art critic
  66. Richard Libertini, actor known for parts in Barney Miller, among others
  67. Kitty Kallen, singer
  68. Judith Kaye, jurist
  69. Florence King, writer
  70. Pat Harrington, actor
  71. Pierre Boulez, musician
  72. Helmut Koester, historian
  73. Dale Bumpers, politician
  74. Guido Westerwelle, politician
  75. Ronnie Corbett, comedian
  76. Cliff Michelmore, whom I miss every election night
  77. David Bowie, musician
  78. Carolyn D. Wright, poet
  79. Alan Rickman, actor
  80. Glenn Frey, musician
  81. Forrest McDonald, historian

And here are some notables who have died since, in no particular order:

  1. Drew Lewis, the archenemy of American organized labor
  2. Billy Paul, who sang “Me and Mrs Jones”
  3. Jenny Diski, novelist and critic
  4. Daniel Berrigan, priest and antiwar activist
  5. Abel Fernandez, actor
  6. Candye Kane, musician and sex worker
  7. Mark Laneeminence grise of the “Who Killed Kennedy?” industry
  8. Prince Alexander of Yugoslavia, symbol of a forlorn hope
  9. Julius LaRosa, singer, actor
  10. Fritz Stern, historian
  11. Morley Safer, newsman
  12. Burt Kwouk, actor
  13. Mell Lazarus, cartoonist
  14. Ivor Robinson, physicist
  15. Morton White, philosopher, intellectual historian
  16. Muhammad Ali, boxer
  17. Theresa Saldana, actor
  18. George Voinovich, politician
  19. Ann Morgan Guilbert, actor
  20. Jo Cox, politician
  21. Anton Yelchin, actor
  22. Ralph Stanley, musician
  23. Bud Spencer, actor
  24. Alan Young, actor
  25. Michael Cimino, filmmaker
  26. William Armstrong, former US Senator from Colorado who moved to Maryland and explored the idea of running for US Senator from there
  27. Alvin Toffler, futurist
  28. Yves Bonnefoy, poet
  29. Elie Wiesel, writer and activist
  30. Noel Neill, the real Lois Lane, and apparently part of the visual inspiration for Lisa Simpson
  31. Abbas Kiarostami, filmmaker, central figure of the Iranian New Wave of the 1990s
  32. Abner Mikva, politician and jurist
  33. John McMartin, actor
  34. Norman Abbott, pioneering television director
  35. Sydney Schanberg, who told us about the killing fields of Cambodia, then kept telling us other things we didn’t want to know
  36. John Brademas, politician and educator
  37. Carolyn See, novelist and educator
  38. Billy Name, photographer and eccentric
  39. Garry Marshall, film-maker
  40. Elaine Fantham, classical scholar
  41. Mari Gilbert, who campaigned to make us remember homicide victims, dead as the result of a homicide
  42. Tim LaHaye, fantasy novelist
  43. Jack Davis, cartoonist and writer for Mad magazine
  44. Piet de Jong, onetime Dutch premier
  45. Patrice Munsel, singer
  46. Pete Fountain, clarinetist
  47. Marni Nixon, singer
  48. Gloria deHaven, actor who so perfectly embodied Old Hollywood as to have been cast in her first major part because Charlie Chaplin had the hots for her (no apparent relation to Bruce deHaven, a football coach who also died this year)
  49. Kenny Baker, who was often inside R2D2 when they were making Star Wars, and who acted in a number of films
  50. Fyvush Finkel, actor
  51. Ernst Nolte, historian
  52. Jack Riley, actor
  53. Antony Jay, co-creator of Yes, Minister
  54. Toots Thielemans, musician
  55. Steven Hill, actor
  56. Rudy Van Gelder, recording engineer
  57. Gene Wilder, actor
  58. Islam Karimov, president of Uzbekistan
  59. Phyllis Schlafly, arch-nemesis of American feminism and all allied movements
  60. Robert Timberg, journalist
  61. Edward Albee, playwright
  62. His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej, a.k.a. Rama IX, King of Thailand
  63. Dario Fo, who won the 1997 Nobel Prize for Literature for reasons that have never been explained
  64. W. P. Kinsella, novelist
  65. Charmian Carr, actor
  66. Buckwheat Zydeco, musician
  67. Herschell Gordon Lewis, film-maker
  68. Curtis Roosevelt, author
  69. Gloria Naylor, novelist
  70. Irving Moskowitz, doctor turned businessman turned well-meaning menace
  71. Agnes Nixon, soap opera mastermind (no apparent relation to Marni Nixon)
  72. Shimon Peres, statesman
  73. Jim Zapp, baseball player
  74. Lowell Thomas, junior, film-maker and politician
  75. Arnold Palmer, golfer
  76. Neville Marriner, conductor
  77. Peter Allen, announcer of the Metropolitan Opera’s radio broadcasts
  78. Jacob Neusner, the most-published scholar in the world
  79. Andrzej Wajda, film-maker
  80. Patricia Barry, actor
  81. Phil Chess, record producer
  82. Robert Weber, cartoonist
  83. Donald Henderson, who led the project that eliminated smallpox (who died shortly after I mentioned that his portrait ought someday to adorn US currency)
  84. Jack Chick, cartoonist, crackpot
  85. Tom Hayden, activist, politician
  86. Bobby Vee, singer
  87. Nicholas Braithwaite, onetime Grenadian premier
  88. Tammy Grimes, actor, star of a show that was on opposite Star Trek in 1966
  89. Don Marshall, actor, one-time guest star on Star Trek (after Tammy Grimes’ show was off the air)
  90. Natalie Babbitt, children’s author
  91. Gene LaRocque, naval officer, antiwar activist
  92. Clive Derby-Lewis, pro-Apartheid politician and murderer (but I repeat myself…)
  93. Kay Starr, singer
  94. Leonard Cohen, poet, songwriter, singer
  95. Janet Reno, politician
  96. Robert Vaughan, actor, political scientist
  97. Pat Summitt, basketball coach
  98. Maurice White, musician
  99. Gordie Howe, hockey player
  100. John McLaughlin, Jesuit priest turned Washington pundit
  101. Leon Russell, musician
  102. Gwen Ifill, journalist
  103. Mose Allison, singer, songwriter
  104. Melvin Laird, politician
  105. Ralph Branca, baseball player
  106. Denton Cooley, heart surgeon
  107. Florence Henderson, actor
  108. Fidel Castro, tyrant
  109. Ron Glass, actor known for a part on Barney Miller, among other things
  110. Fritz Weaver, actor
  111. Van Williams, actor, star of a TV series spoofed by Burt Kwouk
  112. Bruce Mazlish, historian
  113. Grant Tinker, television executive
  114. Mark Taimanov, chess champion and concert pianist
  115. Don Calfa, actor known for parts on Barney Miller, among other things
  116. Peng Chang-kuei, the inventor of General Tso’s Chicken
  117. Philip Knightley, writer
  118. John Glenn, on two separate occasions holder of the record as the oldest man to visit outer space
  119. A. A. Gill, writer
  120. Jim Prior, politician (not to be confused with hockey announcer Jim Prior, who also died in 2016)
  121. Ralph Raico, economist and staunch disciple of Murray Rothbard
  122. Shirley Hazzard, author of The Transit of Venus
  123. Alan Thicke, entertainment personality
  124. Thomas Schelling, economist and geopolitiker
  125. Bernard Fox, actor best known as Colonel Crittendon from Hogan’s Heroes
  126. E. R. Braithwaite, diplomat and author of To Sir, With Love and Honorary White, among other excellent books
  127. Henry Heimlich, lifesaver extraordinaire
  128. Benjamin Gilman, politician who helped get people out of jail
  129. William Hudnut, former mayor of Indianapolis who moved to Maryland, and did William Armstrong one better by actually getting elected to a mayoralty there
  130. Zsa Zsa Gabor, who pioneered the art of being well-known for one’s well-knownness
  131. Yevgeny Dzhugashvili, dutiful grandson
  132. Louis Harris, king of the pollsters
  133. Lawrence Colburn, one of the helicopter men who stopped the My Lai massacre, saving hundreds of lives and preserving the honor of the American military
  134. George Michael, singer and songwriter
  135. Vera Rubin, astronomer who played a key role in the discovery of most matter
  136. George Irving, actor whose name I noticed for the first time just a day before he died. He played the Heat Miser in 1974’s “Year Without a Santa Claus.”  On Christmas I happened to be in a room where that was playing, the voice struck me as familiar, so I looked at the credits to see if it was associated with a recognizable name.
  137. Hans Tietmeyer, central banker who saw better than anyone what the Euro would mean
  138. Carrie Fisher, actor and writer, who had hilarious roles in both of the two good movies to come from Saturday Night Live.
  139. Richard Adams, novelist
  140. Duck Edwing, cartoonist and writer for Mad Magazine
  141. Debbie Reynolds, actor, mother of Carrie Fisher, whose most famous ovie role often reminds people of Marni Nixon
  142. Joyce Appleby, historian
  143. Chris Cannizarro, baseball player
  144. Edwin Goldwasser, physicist and administrator
  145. William Christopher, actor who appeared in TV military comedies such as Hogan’s Heroes and M*A*S*H

So that averages out to a little more than one person I’d heard of dying every 36 hours. That doesn’t really sound like all that high a rate of death, since the total number of people whose names I would recognize must run into six figures.

*Not including people whose names I didn’t recognize, but who became famous after death. So for example, Ambassador Andrei Karlov and his assassin were household names by the end of 2016, but I’d never heard of either of them until they were both dead.

 

 

Power keeps faith with power

The recent death of longtime Cuban despot Fidel Castro has led many to remark on the admiration Castro received from many who might have been expected to find in him an enemy. For example, Roman Catholic blogger Mark Shea wrote a post remarking on Castro’s brutal repression of the Roman Catholic church in Cuba; his commenters responded by pointing out that leading members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, including the past three popes, have made many signs of friendship towards Castro. Rod Dreher documents the complicity of Roman Catholic bishops in Castro’s regime in some detail; Mr Dreher is not Roman Catholic, but Russian Orthodox. However, in the same post he reports on a statement made by his own chief pastor, the Patriarch of Moscow, in praise of Castro, showing that his church is in no better a position.

That the leaders of the largest theistic organization in the world would make themselves so useful to the leader of a regime that has oppressed the adherents of that organization so fiercely ceases to seem strange if we take this as the first rule of analysis: Power keeps faith with power. If a common ideology or common social identity ensured loyalty, the hierarchs of Rome and Havana would stand with the laity, the religious, and the parish priests who have been imprisoned for their faith; yet they rarely mention these persecuted, happily consorting with their persecutors. The only ideological consideration that moves those in power to act is the belief that the institutions which maintain their position should continue to operate, which means that those who are in a position to help or hinder those institutions in matters affecting their survival must be brought on board. The only identity that influences the actions of the mighty is their identity with each other; the powerless, even the powerless among their own supporters and putative fellows, are abstractions whom they rarely encounter in person, but see primarily as figures on revenue statements, opinion surveys, and other ledgers.

Flagrantly corrupt organizations like the Roman Catholic Church and the Cuban Communist Party are easy targets for this sort of analysis. But the same principle applies everywhere. So the policies by which USA has opposed the Castro regime are unintelligible except as a case of power keeping faith with power, betraying every other trust. The two chief prongs of the economic warfare that the USA waged on Cuba throughout virtually the whole of Castro’s time at the head of the regime there were, on the one hand, a highly restrictive policy on trade between the USA and Cuba, and on the other a highly lax policy on immigration from Cuba. The trade embargo has been greatly eased in recent years, but only after it had consistently failed to weaken Castro’s grip on power for a half-century. And the “Dry Foot” immigration policy remains in effect. Though the Dry Foot policy has certainly helped to immiserate the people of Cuba by accelerating the Brain Drain of skilled professionals and other highly productive individuals from the island, it has probably strengthened the regime’s grip on power, by luring to Miami and points north the people likeliest to lead a revolt .  Both halves of the economic warfare policy were worse than useless to those who were ostensibly supposed to be its principal beneficiaries; that the embargo persisted for so long, and the Dry Foot policy persists still, is explicable only in terms of the powerful interests in the USA who benefit from their continuation, and from power’s tendency to keep faith with power.

Remembering that power keeps faith with power, we see what people may be getting at when they deride “identity politics.” Writing in Slate, Jamelle Bouie argues that Jesse Jackson’s “Rainbow Coalition” of the 1980s, inviting disenfranchised white working people to identify with people of color and other minority groups, is a better model for a revival of the American Left than is Senator Bernard “Bernie” Sanders’ vision of a politics that puts class first. Mr Bouie sums up his case thus:

But the history of the Democratic Party contains a model for moving forward, with an approach, honed by Jesse Jackson, that bridges the divide. And thinkers in the political and policy world have crafted solutions that reflect this approach. It respects the reality of the modern Democratic Party: a formation that represents—and depends on—the votes of women, young people, and people of color.

Mainstream Democrats have set their sights on white voters. But the path forward—the way to win them and energize those voters of color who didn’t come to the polls in 2016—might lie in the insights of black voters and black communities and a larger appreciation of how and why identity matters, in a politics of we kin, blackness in many shades. Against a political movement that defines America in exclusionary and racial terms—as a white country for white people—a renewed Rainbow Coalition is the only defense worth making.

As far as it goes, this is unexceptionable. When we get to “the reality of the modern Democratic Party,” though, we see a big trap door about to open under our feet. The Democrats can get the votes of 60,000,000 or more people in national elections, roughly half the electorate, yet hold fewer than 30% of all elected offices in the USA. Part of this can be blamed on institutional quirks such as the boundaries of the states, gerrymandering of electoral districts within states, the advantage that Republicans derive from their greater financial resources, etc.

Other parts of the problem derive from a vulnerability inherent in the structure of “the modern Democratic Party.” The great majority of African Americans may vote for Democrats, but the voices heard in the councils of the party are not those of that majority, but of the professional politicians who presume to speak for black people. Likewise for each of the other groups that make up the Democratic coalition. Often the spokespeople will come reasonably close to the views of their constituents, but even then there is an Achilles’ Heel- voters know from long experience that power, including the relatively modest power to draft portions of the Democratic Party platform and to have a say in who will be appointed as Deputy Assistant Secretaries of Housing and Urban Development under Democratic presidents, keeps faith with power.

Nonblack voters thus hear invitations to identify with blackness, when they come from the Democratic Party, not as invitations to identify with their African American neighbors, but as invitations to go along with the policy positions of the Congressional Black Caucus and similar groups. Those groups may do a fairly good job of speaking for the people they claim to represent, but are made up of human beings, and are therefore ships tossed on the rough seas of politics. As such, they are as likely, given time, as the US foreign policy establishment or the Cuban Communist Party or the Roman Catholic church to find themselves making common cause with the deadliest enemies of anyone who is so incautious as to trust them without reservation. That leaves whites open to the appeal of the ethnic bloc voting that they have long practiced in the South and that they increasingly display in other parts of the country where their numerical majority is as weak as it is in the South, perhaps less because they prefer the leaders of the Republican Party to those of the Democratic Party than because they can see a clearer path to influencing the leaders of a party that depends on them for its core support than they can see to influencing the leaders of a party that depends on everyone but them for its core support. When an ethnic group votes as a bloc, it is a power within the party it backs, and the other powers within that party dare not betray it too obviously.  When the members of a group scatter their votes, that group is no power, and its role is to be betrayed at every turn. So, in the absence of a labor movement or other force uniting people on a basis other than race, white voters are no more likely to identify with blackness than African American voters are to identify with whiteness.

Those who saw it coming, those who fear its leaving

Some observers of the US political scene did predict the outcome of Tuesday’s presidential election with some success. That shouldn’t be surprising; the polls consistently predicted that the national popular vote would be close, which it was, that Hillary Clinton would win it by a narrow margin, which she did, that the vote would be even closer in states including Florida, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, which it was, and that the vote in those states would determine the winner of the Electoral College and therefore of the presidency, which it did. So, making a right prediction required only that one take the polls at face value, disregarding historical analogies and political science models which suggested that someone like Donald J. Trump (alias Don John of Astoria) could not possibly be elected US president.

Among those who can fairly claim to have shown real prescience in connection with this election, pride of place should go to Steve Sailer, who has spent the last 16 years describing how a Republican candidate running on a pledge to restrict immigration could precipitate ethnic bloc voting among whites and thereby win a national election. He’s been reposting some of his old stuff lately, for example this 2000 piece in which he first laid out “the Sailer Strategy.” Mr Sailer has been remarkably restrained with his I-Told-You-So’s; in hundreds of pieces over the years, he has outlined scenarios that have played out in 2016. As a longtime reader of Mr Sailer’s blog, I do find it a bit jarring that he, so long a voice far removed from the ins and outs of Washington politics, is now mentioning people whom he apparently knows personally as potential appointees to senior positions on the White House staff.

Scott Adams, the guy behind the “Dilbert” comic strip, has attracted a great deal of attention for predicting a Trump win; in several posts lately he’s been focused on responses to the election as illustrations of the concept of cognitive dissonance.

Mr Sailer is a Trump supporter, and Mr Adams is not a Trump adversary. Liberals, leftists, and others who strongly oppose Don John have been searching for explanations as to what went wrong Tuesday. Some of these reflections focus on the shortcomings of the sort of people who voted for Mr Trump; these could be summed up in this cinematic moment:

Some reactions have been more interesting. Quartz classifies political parties around the world as “populist” or “liberal,” and finds the populists riding a wave. The more I look at their lists, the more the “populist” and “liberal” labels look like big grab-bags of organizations that have very little in common, but there are some neat maps, and I do think they are onto something.

Atrios is angry with Hillary Clinton and her supporters for managing somehow to lose to Donald Trump, and with the elites in the USA more generally for the way they have of failing upward.

Malak Chabkoun sees in Don John’s election a case of chickens coming home to roost from the violence the USA has inflicted on the rest of the world, and in the panicked reactions of many who opposed him a political immaturity based in ignorance of what America’s empire truly is.

On Twitter, Freddie deBoer allows himself an I-Told-You-So:

While Zach Weinersmith talked about the weather election night:

Meanwhile, political scientist Allan Lichtman takes advantage of the moment in the spotlight that his successful prediction of Don John of Astoria’s election has earned him to publicize a further prediction, that he will be impeached. It’s much easier for me to imagine that Don John will warrant impeachment than it was for me to imagine, or indeed than it is for me to believe, that he will be president. So I’m inclined to believe Professor Lichtman. Professor George Hawley of the University of Alabama also predicted the elections results successfully, in his case calling 48 of 50 states correctly; he may yet see that record improve, since Michigan and New Hampshire, the two states where his forecast did not agree with the current reports, are so closely divided that their results are not yet final.

Michael Kazin, writing in The Wall Street Journal, of all publications, traces the rise of Trump to the decline of organized labor.

Jonathan Haidt is always worth reading, and his latest piece is no exception. Asking “In what kind of world can globalists and nationalists live together in peace?,” he has to make statements that sound rather obvious to anyone who reads old books or otherwise cultivates the memory of times before the 2010’s, such as the following:

Nationalists see patriotism as a virtue; they think their country and its culture are unique and worth preserving. This is a real moral commitment, not a pose to cover up racist bigotry. Some nationalists do believe that their country is better than all others, and some nationalisms are plainly illiberal and overtly racist. But as many defenders of patriotism have pointed out, you love your spouse because she or he is yours, not because you think your spouse is superior to all others. Nationalists feel a bond with their country, and they believe that this bond imposes moral obligations both ways: Citizens have a duty to love and serve their country, and governments are duty bound to protect their own people. Governments should place their citizens interests above the interests of people in other countries.

It may be difficult for some to imagine that there are people in the world who actually need to be reminded of this, but as an American academic who lives in a liberal college town I can attest that there are many, enough of them that they may well have influenced the Democrats to adopt losing campaign strategies this year.

Former New York Times reporter Michael Cieply may not have seen the election result coming, but he isn’t surprised that his old paper was so far off in its expectations. He describes how, unlike typical newsrooms in which editors ask reporters what information they’ve picked up and try to figure out what’s going on based on that, Times editors openly devise a framework and craft the news to buttress that framework.

Glenn Greenwald blames liberals for refusing to learn the lessons of Brexit, lessons which he finds stated clearly both in his own writings and in a note by Vincent Bevins of the Los Angeles Times. Writing from a perspective very different from Mr Greenwald’s, Peter Hitchens made similar points. Mr Hitchens opposes British membership in the European Union, but thought the referendum was a disastrously bad way of trying to achieve exit; he also opposes mass immigration from the Islamic world to the West, but clearly does not see in Don John of Astoria a successor to Don John of Austria or other historical defenders of Christendom whom he might be prepared to admire.

Professor Charles Camosy writes that left-of-center academics, and to some extent even college graduates working outside the academy, have so effectively insulated themselves from those to their right that they have become all but incapable of hearing what they have to say. What Professor Camosy sees in general, Professor Stephen Bainbridge sees in a particular event at the University of California at Los Angeles.

And of course there has been some post-election scrambling for personal vindication within what was once the Hillary Clinton campaign. Some of the stories that have made their way into print show surprising people seeming to try to distance themselves from her loss. Notably, Bill Clinton is named as one who advocated a strategy that would have reached out to non-college educated whites in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the voters who put Barack Obama over the top in 2012 and who swung to Donald Trump this year. Perhaps Mr Clinton did not personally authorize this leak- perhaps others within Clintonworld are trying to refurbish his image as a political wizard in order to boost the chances that Chelsea Clinton will be able to start a political career of her own soon.

Post-election wrap-up

Welp, not all of my predictions about the 2016 US presidential election turned out to be 100% correct. The Republicans did not nominate Wisconsin governor Scott Walker for president, Bernie Sanders did not lose every caucus and primary he entered, Donald John Trump did not run out of money and disappear from the race before voting took place, and Hillary Clinton was not elected president. Worst of all, the nickname which I gave Mr Trump,”Don John of Astoria,” which should be truly hilarious to anyone who knows the historical significance of Don John of Austria and the ambivalence in Mr Trump’s relationship to the Astoria district of Queens, has yet to catch on.

So I have not proven to be much of a seer regarding this year’s events. Even so, perhaps some might be interested in my recommendation of two books as illuminating about the events of this electoral year. Both were originally published in 1958, so neither includes any attempts at specific predictions of the sort I kept making.

The first was The Rise of the Meritocracy: 1870-2033, by Michael Young. Young coined the word “meritocracy” in this book, written in the voice of a complacent functionary of a regime which, in the year 2033, has turned Britain into a society where all the good things of life have been turned into prizes to be awarded by competitive examination. The narrator is mystified that the regime is now encountering stiff resistance; after all, it has been so successful that the schools for the more talented children no longer need to send their pupils home at holidays, heralding the final dissolution of that old nuisance, family life.  In later life, Young was horrified that the label he devised for his dystopian nightmare had been adopted without irony as a rallying cry for elites and their defenders.

I do think that one of the secondary contributors to Don John’s rise to the presidency is a revolt against meritocracy. Hillary Clinton went to the right schools, held high-ranking positions that made her a central figure in two of the last three presidential administrations and a leader of the congressional opposition to the other, assembled an impressive campaign organization and staffed it with the most highly-qualified professionals in the business, and consistently presented herself to the public as a competent and well-informed policy expert with a reassuring leaderly presence.  Don John had no experience in government, showed no knowledge of or interest in any aspect of public policy, did not bother to put together a professional campaign organization in the modern style, and said whatever popped into his head at any given moment, often including obscenities. By the standards of meritocracy, it would be inconceivable that any voter anywhere would support him over her.

Therefore, Trump voters’ behavior cannot be explained as an attempt to apply meritocratic standards. Rather, they supported him as a revolt against such standards. This revolt may be rational even in a narrowly bureaucratic definition of rationality, since the schooling, certifications, licensing, and standards of personal presentation that make up the qualifications to rise through the ranks of meritocratic institutions in the USA may not in fact be very closely correlated with the characteristics that make a person likely to succeed in the work that the leaders of those institutions are supposed to do. There is a good deal of “failing upward,” in which people who have held important jobs are promoted to still-more important jobs even though they haven’t done especially well in their previous positions.

Not to kick a person when she’s down, but HRC is a prime example of failing upward. After graduation from Yale Law School, she was unable to pass the District of Columbia Bar Exam, but was assigned as a staff aide to the Senate Watergate Committee anyway. As First Lady of Arkansas she was a key part of efforts to keep the Democratic Party of Arkansas as the major force in the state’s politics; the outcome of those efforts could be seen on Tuesday, when Don John beat her in Arkansas by a vote of 60% to 34%. She then became First Lady of the United States, and in that capacity led the Clinton administration’s attempt to reform the US health care system, an attempt which not only failed to produce any legislation whatever but which also demoralized Democratic voters so thoroughly that the party lost control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. Then she became US Senator from New York, voting for the invasion of Iraq, the USA-PATRIOT Act, and any number of other initiatives that have spread death throughout the world and empowered the US security services to do as they please to citizens who attract their attentions for any reason or no reason. That tenure led to her 2008 presidential campaign, in which she began with the overwhelming support of the party’s major donors and other elites, and wound up losing to Barack Hussein Obama, who is of course an exceptionally talented political operator, but is also a black man named Hussein and was, as such, someone laboring under a heavy disadvantage in a US presidential contest.  Mr O made her Secretary of State, in which capacity her most notable achievement was pushing for the overthrow of the Gadhafi regime, an act of unprovoked aggression which has turned Libya into a hell on earth and brought chaos to the whole of North Africa, but which HRC defends to this day as “smart power at its best.” If our meritocratic institutions can foster a career that has proceeded from failure to failure, with steadily more dire consequences for an ever-widening circle of victims, then there may be some wisdom in deciding that all the academic degrees, resume entries, and interview skills that their members can claim are of little value.

The other 1958 book that shed light for me on the 2016 election was C. Wright Mills’ The Causes of World War Three. (I actually read the second edition, which was published in 1960, but it’s still a 1958 book.)  I was aware of that book’s discussion of “crackpot realism,” the confident assurance of those in charge that policies which can lead only to collective suicide are the only policies worth taking seriously. I hadn’t read the whole thing until this Tuesday, election day, and there were sections which seemed directly relevant to what was going on around me.

Most notably, on pages 36-47 of the 1960 paperback edition, in the chapters titled “The High and the Mighty,” “The Semiorganized Stalemate,” and “The Great American Public,” Mills argued that the USA’s political culture had undergone a profound change in the years following the Second World War. No longer did the middle class form a link between the upper and lower classes; instead, at the top could be found a Power Elite of corporate executives, senior military officers, and politicians, at the bottom a lumpenproletariat with ever less engagement in civic life or sense of investment in the country’s future, and in between a variety of classes disconnected from either the top or the bottom. No longer were the chief questions of politics, matters of war and peace, of fiscal policy and industrial policy on a grand scale, of civil liberties and the power of the security services, decided in open forums characterized by formal checks and balances and the informal competition of interest groups; instead, the Power Elite decides those matters in ways that bear no resemblance at all to the processes described in the civics textbooks, while the middle classes still have their civic organizations, labor unions, local elections, and so on, where they can decide smaller questions in more or less the traditional ways. The people at the bottom are left to go along for the ride.

That image does sum up something important about contemporary American politics.  The USA is currently fighting wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia. There was no substantive discussion of any of these conflicts in the presidential campaign. Virtually the only references to Libya to make any impression on the US public were to “Benghazi,” an incident in which four Americans were killed. That always made me think of the old joke about The Boston Globe, that it was such an insular newspaper that if New York City were destroyed by a nuclear bomb and only one Bostonian happened to be in town that day, the headline would be “Hub Man Killed in Atom Blast.” We have murdered a nation, inflicted chaos on half a continent, and the whole matter is reduced to the fate of the four Americans among the dead. But why should it be different? If the only people with a say in where the bombs fall are the handful whom Mills would identify as the Power Elite, why should the rest of us pay attention to anything other than little stories of human interest about gallant public servants who gave their lives in frightening circumstances in an exotic land?

And if the major questions are to be decided outside the sphere of voting and public discussion, why not spend a presidential campaign season arguing about whether a former Miss Universe is more than her tabloid image, or whether an octogenarian senator followed the POW Code of Conduct while in enemy hands decades ago, or what kind of email accounts high officials should use, or other minutiae?

It goes beyond minutiae and particular campaigns. If the only questions decided within the sphere of voting and public discussion are secondary, why not organize parties based solely on those issues? If the US trade deficit is driven largely by our use of a nonrefundable corporate income tax rather than a border-adjusted value added tax and only marginally affected by trade agreements, but the tax regime is a matter for the Power Elite while trade agreements are subject to the will of the electorate, then candidates may rage against trade agreements all they like, but never mention the corporate income tax or propose a border-adjusted value added tax.

 

A lottery that has never paid out

Andrew Gelman writes a fine blog, but he shares the bizarre fixation on instrumental voting that clouds the thinking of so many in the USA. He keeps regurgitating a pained argument, based on the idea that voters are like buyers of lottery tickets. The voter wins the lottery if s/he casts the decisive vote in the election. Since Professor Gelman trots this out to discuss US presidential elections, in which over 100,000,000 votes are cast, he can apply this argument only by resorting to extremely unlikely scenarios. So, he calculates the likelihood that Oklahoma will be decided by a single vote and that Oklahoma’s Electoral Votes will be decisive as 1 in 1 billion. If the better of the two leading candidates adds a cumulative $30,000,000,000 of value to the lives of the world’s people beyond what the worse candidate adds, or subtracts that much less value, then each of the popular votes for president cast in Oklahoma is like a ticket that would be valued at $30 in a fair lottery.

This is of course insane.  For one thing, if you’re going to admit 1 in a billion chances as a basis for rational action, all sorts of things become rational. For example, there is a 1 in a billion chance that Green Party nominee Dr Jill Stein will be inaugurated as president on 20 January 2017. Say there is 1 chance in 50 that tomorrow’s election will end in a 269-269 Electoral College tie.  1/50 seems like a reasonably conservative estimate for a map like this:


Click the map to create your own at 270toWin.com

Washington state Democratic elector Robert Satiacum has said that he will not vote for Hillary Clinton; if, as is overwhelmingly likely, Washington state votes for the Democratic candidate, let’s say Mr Satiacum has a 50% chance of voting for Dr Stein, a candidate who fits his views quite well. Now, the parties choose electors who are reliable supporters of the party’s regular candidates; Hillary Clinton is very much a regular Democratic candidate of the variety that has been on the market for the last quarter century, while Don-John of Astoria is markedly different from the usual run of Republican nominees.  So if there is one faithless Democratic elector, it is likely that there is more than one faithless Republican elector.  It seems unlikely that there is much more than 1 chance in 10, in the scenario as we have constructed it so far, that Mr Satiacum’s vote would be sufficient to qualify Dr Stein as one of the top three Electoral Vote recipients, the group from among whom the US House of Representatives must choose the winner of an inclusive election. So that gets us to a 1/1000 chance that the House will be presented with a vote of Trump 269- Clinton 268- Stein 1.

If the Democratic presidential candidate fails to win a clear victory, it is unlikely that the Democrats will gain enough seats in the House to defeat Don John. Let’s set that likelihood at 1/1000 also. That gets us to 1/1,000,000.

Hillary Clinton is a mortal being, subject to all the frailties flesh is heir to. In the interval between the Electoral College vote and the congressional vote, she may fall gravely ill, or be abducted by aliens, or have a religious awakening and decide to devote the remainder of her life to Hare Krishna, or otherwise become unavailable. Let’s set the odds of some such development at 1/1000. Little as they may love Dr Stein or the Greens, the Democrats could hardly vote to install Don John as president. That gives us our 1/1,000,000,000 chance of a Stein presidency.

Absurd? Of course. The absurdity level starts far above 1/1,000,000,000; even the 1/ 1000 long-shots are not worth a thought.

As I’ve said before, instrumental voting of the kind Professor Gelman treats as the only worthwhile kind is reasonable only in electorates of fewer than 700. Expressive voting, however, has value even in very large electorates, and there is no lottery about it. Office holders seeking reelection and other leaders of major parties do in fact look at election returns in search of votes they could gain or lose depending on what policies they support; votes cast for minor parties with clear issue profiles are among the inputs which provide them with this information. When the major parties become too much alike, this is the only way voters can signal a desire for them to move apart, as voters signal when they believe the parties have become too different from each other by switching from one major party to the other. So, the only rational vote you can cast is a vote for the candidate who best reflects your views, whether that candidate is supported by a major party or a minor one.

What would happen if the US presidency were replaced by a plural executive?

il_570xn-761091493_ix8gI’ve long advocated replacing the US presidency with a plural executive. I think that in the long run, that would drain several poisons from American political culture.

Where a single person is the focus of so much attention, the tendency to believe that the power to solve the world’s problems is in the hands of that person becomes very strong. Supporters of the political party led by a president or candidate for president then come to believe that if the president were unhindered by the restraints of the law, of political opposition, and of morality, evil and hardship would vanish from the earth. Magical thinking of this sort leads to support for wars, disregard for civil liberties, tolerance for secrecy, and other measures that have consistently produced disastrous results throughout history.  Meanwhile, supporters of the other party come to believe that it is the personal wickedness of its presidential choice that threatens the earth with the greatest woes, and under that belief lose all contact with political reality, showing ever more fanatical support for their party and its candidate regardless of the facts.

Replacing the presidency with a plural executive would eliminate the glamour and mystique that attach to the office of the chief executive, thereby allowing the clouds of magical thinking to dissipate and creating the possibility that a modicum of rationality might make itself felt in US political life.  Perhaps voters would even start to participate in elections for the most powerful bodies in all of American government, the state legislatures.

Such a rise of rationality would take time, however. In the first generation, the plural executive would probably compose a more-or-less representative sample of the existing political elite, and would organize itself around the consensus views in Washington. Of course, a country which had just managed to rid itself of the presidency and to put a plural executive in its place would probably be a saner place than is the celebrity-obsessed, war-mad USA of the early twenty-first century, and so the Washington consensus in that scenario would be quite different from the consensus that exists today. However, it is worth pausing over the thought that, if we did have a plural executive in the USA, that executive would probably be a lagging indicator of prevailing opinion in Washington conventional wisdom, since that description also fits Hillary Rodham Clinton.  Indeed, for all her undoubted talents, experience, and work ethic, as a policy-maker HRC could easily be replaced by a software program which would distill the policy recommendations of the leading op-ed pages, think-tanks, etc.  Next year, then, we are likely to have a sort of dry run of the workings of a plural executive, though in an environment still driven by delusions about a superhuman god-emperor.