Bullshit! Or: How To Frankfurt a Trump

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As I mentioned in my recent post, “How To Nussbaum a Trump“, others have pointed out the relevance of Harry Frankfurt’s analysis of bullshit to Trump’s rhetoric, and a few have alluded to how he might be the first post-modern President. However, given how “truth-challenged” his administration appears to be in its opening week, I thought it might be worthwhile to develop those themes in a little more depth.

Harry Frankfurt, professor emeritus at Princeton, is best known among philosophers for what are called “Frankfurt cases”: apparent counterexamples to the widespread assumption that an agent is morally responsible for what she does only if she can do otherwise. Frankfurt cases might be relevant to understanding Trump insofar as they imply that he (like anyone else) should be held morally responsible for his words and actions even if he is incapable of speaking or acting otherwise (as he well might be). But more relevant here is a distinction Frankfurt developed in 1985, and later published in his accessible little book entitled “On Bullshit” (2005). It was this book (or at least its title) that inspired Jon Stewart to interview Frankfurt on The Daily Show, thereby elevating (or lowering?) him to the role of “public intellectual” for a brief period.

“On Bullshit” is not among Frankfurt’s best work, but it’s about as readable as analytic philosophy can be. It’s also just plain fun to read a book by a highly respected professor that is copiously sprinkled with ‘bullshit’. The book’s framework can help to explain the sort causal disregard for truth and justification (or evidence) that Trump has demonstrated at least since his “Birther” years (2011-2016). The fundamental idea is this: we need to distinguish bullshitters from both people with merely false beliefs and liars. Anyone can be mistaken, and reasonable people will usually modify their beliefs once they are aware of their falsity. Take, for example, Zeke Miller, the reporter who mistakenly reported last week that a bust of MLK Jr. had been removed from the oval office; learning of his mistake, he immediately corrected his report. Liars, by contrast, are usually aware of the their statements’ falsity, and – for that very reason – intentionally try to hide it. So they recognize and “respect” (in the sense of fear) at least the particular truth they are trying to hide. But bullshitters have no respect for, or even fear of, the truth. The concept is not on their radar screen. Bullshitters might use the terms ‘true’ or ‘false’ and ‘right or ‘wrong’, but they don’t do so seriously. Think of Trump’s multiple exclamations of ‘wrong!’ during the debates with Clinton. He made no attempt to follow up with any evidence that might justify his charge, and thereby demonstrate at least a modicum of respect for truth. Rather, he seemed content to merely express his disapproval… and perhaps to do so in a way he thought his followers might find entertaining or pleasing in some other way.

The failure to take truth, evidence, or epistemic rationality seriously suggests a close kinship between natural bullshitters like Trump and far more intellectual “post-modernists”. Unlike contemporary modernists, many of whom regard objective truth as a mere ideal, but one towards which we can make progress by adopting at least apparently reliable belief-forming processes, post-modernists (of a certain stripe) reject the notion of objective truth outright, preferring to promote the value of sincerity instead. Sincerity, on such a view, is the best one can hope for, epistemically speaking.

Now, a significant number of Trump’s followers cite his penchant for “speaking his mind” as their main reason for voting for him, and downplay the importance of what he says being true or justified, or even of his beliefs being consistent with their own. (This was evident in Tom Ashbrook’s interview of Trump supporters on On Point this morning.) Clearly, such followers value sincerity over evidence, which they seem quite comfortable without, and I see no reason to doubt their judgment that Trump is sincere (at least some of the time). Surely it would be difficult if not humanly impossible to express such wildly unjustified beliefs as that climate change is a Chinese hoax, or that most undocumented Mexican immigrants are rapists and drug dealers, or – for many years – that Obama was born in Kenya, without holding those beliefs sincerely. On the other hand, Trump seems not to value sincerity for its own sake. Rather, what ultimately matters to him seems to be neither truth, nor evidence, nor sincerity, but rather the practical consequences of expressing a belief. That is, Trump seems to use his expressions of belief like a carpenter uses his tools: to build his base of support, or to manipulate a situation (for example, to strike a deal or make an ally). In this he may appear to more closely resemble a pragmatist than a post-modernist. However, pragmatism, a philosophical outlook pioneered by William James, John Dewey, and Charles Pierce, takes the concept of truth seriously enough to bother redefining it in terms of the practical consequences of holding a belief. Bullshitters don’t care enough about truth to bother redefining it, and since Trump keeps reconfirming the observation that he is a bullshitter, I think we can safely avoid placing him in the lofty company of James, Dewey, or Pierce.

I want to stress that identifying Trump as a bullshitter in no way directly impugns his policy positions. Even the most dedicated bullshitter may (at least inadvertently) speak the truth, or have a good policy idea. Neither should we assume that most of Trump’s supporters value his sincerity merely for its own sake; many may also take it as a sign that he will keep his policy promises. Finally, although Trump often invites insults by insulting others, arguing that we should reject his policies merely because he is a bullshitter would be to commit an ad hominem fallacy, and so to imitate him. However, when Trump argues that we should accept his pronouncements and policies just because he is trustworthy or reliable, then it is not fallacious at all to point out that he is neither. And the more bullshit he spouts, the less we should regard him as either.

How To Nussbaum a Trump

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Photo by Dominick Reuter/Reuters

Trumpology, the still-nascent study of Trump, is an interdisciplinary pursuit. I have nothing to add to what many pundits and social scientists have observed about Trump’s politics and policies (such as they are, or as they might come to be). But I do think that philosophers have contributions to make to the field (beyond pointing out that Trump’s tweets are a virtual cornucopia of ad hominem fallacies). For instance, there have been several articles on how Harry Frankfurt’s analysis of bullshit seems to apply to Trump’s rhetoric, including this piece by Jeet Heer at the New Republic. (By the way, for an entertaining if over the top primer on Frankfurt’s view of bullshit, see this video). Others have noted how Trump may be the first post-modernist president, which is richly ironic, given how Republicans have vilified post-modernist academics for so many decades. But as far as I know, no one has yet noted how Martha Nussbaum’s “moral psychology” – a type of philosophy that focuses on the psychological determinants of moral and immoral behavior – might help to explain the authoritarian (or, if you prefer, the bullying) aspects of Trump’s personality. I have no reason to think that she had Trump in mind when she developed the ideas I discuss below (why would she have, unless her TV happened to be tuned to The Apprentice while she was writing), but that just makes their “trumpological” relevance all the more remarkable. I also don’t know whether she would agree with how I am applying a very small part of her framework to our new President. Although she made a few remarks about Trump in the context of an interview on anger at The Atlantic, she did not mention how her broader view of the authoritarian personality might apply to him.

The central ideas of Nussbaum’s moral psychology are defended in depth and detail in her Upheavals Of Thought (2001). However, if you lack the time or patience to read that 800+ page tome, many of the same general ideas can be found in her much shorter and more accessable Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010). I highly recommend either book, but for brevity’s sake I’ll focus here only on the ideas as they are expressed in Not For Profit.

As with Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, Nussbaum’s brand of moral psychology has been criticized for over-emphasizing early childhood development. However, Nussbaum regards her developmental views as constituting a mere “narrative”, rather than a scientific theory. As such, she feels little need to present experimental evidence (although she does present some). Rather, she argues that her speculations are well-supported by ordinary experience (including memories of one’s own childhood, observations of other children, clinical observations offered by psychotherapists of their patients, and the deep-dives into experience that the best novelists are capable of. In any case, the question here is not whether her narrative is generalizable, but rather whether it is applicable to the quite particular case of Donald Trump. After all, although Trump’s political ideology and policy prescriptions are far from clear, his personality has been in the spotlight for at least a year and a half, and I believe that Nussbaum’s view of how such a personality might be produced can shed some light on the authoritarian tendencies Trump has plainly displayed. That doesn’t mean it’s the only way of accounting for Trump’s personality… But it’s a possible starting point for biographers and other Trumpologists to consider.

As Nussbaum’s narrative is condensed in Chapter 3 of Not For Profit, it begins with two main observations. First, “Human infants are born, helpless, into a world that they did not make and do not control”, and second, infants (and even newborns) are born with, or else rapidly develop, a significant amount of emotional sophistication. Since for Nussbaum – as for many other philosophers and psychologists – emotions are cognitions or judgments of a situation’s value relative to the subject’s goals or preferences, this implies that young children, infants, and even some non-human animals have a more sophisticated mental life than one might suppose. In the case of most humans, first comes anxiety, which is caused by the infant’s expectation that their immediate needs and desires will be satisfied, along with the fact that sometimes – perhaps often – this expectation is not met. More controversially, perhaps, Nussbaum asserts that this anxiety is accompanied by a primitive type of shame that is caused by the (non-verbal) realization that “one is not in fact omnipotent”. Narcissism, a trait characterized by an obsessive self-focus and an ongoing desire for completeness, power, and control, emerges as a reaction to the primitive anxiety and shame. Complicating matters further, the shame that began as a result of dependency on others is soon joined by disgust at one’s own bodily waste products – an emotion often triggered by toilet training. That disgust, combined with a growing narcissism, leads to projection. We observe this when children stigmatize other children as “having cooties”, but that relatively innocent sort of game can turn much more serious when social influences focus the projection onto subordinate groups. At that point whole populations can be bifurcated into the “pure” and the “impure”. Later, particularly among adolescent males, peer pressure based on socially accepted conceptions of “the real man” (that include unrealistic norms of perfection, invulnerability, and control) tends to further exacerbate the narcissism that began in infancy. Finally, given a social milieu in which most people tend to defer to authority, acquiesce to the dehumanization of vulnerable groups (e.g., the widespread objectification of women), and fail to raise critical or dissenting voices, and the authoritarian personality grows and thrives.

Obviously, this narrative is controversial. I should also stress that it is only a very partial representation of Nussbaum’s view, as she gives an equally detailed analysis (in Upheavals of Thought) of competing developmental processes – involving innate and learned capacities for empathy and compassion – that allow people to avoid developing intense narcissism or an authoritarian personality. However, if this view of authoritarian personality development is right, its value lies in how it can reveal junctures at which parents and societies can intervene in the process to disrupt it, and (on the positive side of the ledger) to encourage the development of an empathetic citizenry capable of participating in a genuine democracy. To that end, Nussbaum goes on to point out ways of countering projective disgust, the pure/impure bifurcation, narcissism, and unrealistic norms of perfection and invulnerability.

So to what extent can Nussbaum’s narrative help to explain Trump? First, Trump’s having been for most of his life the head of a highly successful (whether multi-million or multi-billion dollar) company seems likely to have involved the social factors that could nurture his authoritarian personality, once it had already started to develop. That is, in such a situation, Trump would likely have been surrounded by people who would defer to his authority, and who would feel uncomfortable voicing much dissent. Also, at some point prior to this, Trump, like most other Americans, would have been exposed to the prejudices, racisms, and misogyny that have always permeated American culture. Indeed, these were more intense during Trump’s formative years than they are now. And here is where the rubber really meets the road. For if Nussbaum is right, it was those influences that shaped and amplified Trump’s projective disgust, which was so amply manifested during the campaign. Consistent with the observation that he is misogynistic, it began by his singling out women as targets. For instance, as Alexander Hurst noted in The New Republic:

Last week, Donald Trump was once again disgusted. Commenting on Hillary Clinton’s awkward bathroom break during the last Democratic debate, he said, “I know where she went, it’s disgusting, I don’t want to talk about it. No, it’s too disgusting. Don’t say it, it’s disgusting, let’s not talk.”

It’s not the first time that Trump has been perturbed by a bodily function. As Frank Bruni noted in his New York Times column, Trump has been publicly disgusted by Marco Rubio’s sweat and by the idea of pumping breast milk. Then there was his notorious comment about Fox News host Megyn Kelly, in which he conveyed an almost visceral revulsion: “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”

The Trump campaign has stunned bemused pundits by growing in strength with every controversy and outrageous policy proposal, like banning foreign Muslims from entering the United States. It has finally forced them to admit that his success comes not despite these things, but because of them.

What if disgust is a distinct part of that?

What if, indeed?

Similarly, Trump repeatedly manifested the adolescent norms of “real manhood” in his dealings with the other candidates. Perhaps these were cemented into his personality during his years at the military academy he attended, which he fondly remembers as being quite formative. In any case, we all recall how Jeb Bush (and later Clinton) were accused of having “low-energy”, and how Marco Rubio was nicknamed “little-Marco”. Ted Cruz escaped this direct form of belittling, perhaps because Trump sensed that Cruz has narcissistic tendencies (“leadership qualities”?) similar to his own. However, Cruz did have to deal with insults against his wife, which is not surprising on a Nussbaumian analysis. For according to adolescent male ideals, the more attractive a man’s wife or girlfriend is, the more “manly” the man is. If Trump intuited that Cruz shared his own adolescent conception of a “real man”, he also might have supposed that he could successfully attack Cruz by insulting his wife. He did, and it worked: Cruz got suitably rattled. “Real men” don’t get rattled. Finally, when Rubio tried to strike back at the same adolescent level by insinuating that Trump’s little fingers indicated that he has a little penis, Trump proudly remarked that that was certainly not the case. (That’s how “real men” respond to an insult, not by getting rattled but by doubling down). And that response worked, because Rubio was trying to out-bully Trump, a hopeless task given that it takes a lifetime to develop an authoritarian personality of Trumpian proportions, and it was obvious that Rubio was not that type of guy (and Bush was even less so). Commentators, of course, decried the level on which this discourse played out, but that level could have been predicted (and explained) by Nussbaum’s narrative.

Finally, Nussbaum’s narrative might be useful in explaining Trump’s “bromance” with Vladimir Putin. For on that narrative, authoritarian bravado masks a deep insecurity born of unresolved anxiety, shame, and disgust. Trump’s oversized self-image needs constant feeding to counterbalance those negative emotions or self-judgments (this, of course, helps to explain his thin skin). Who better to supply this feeding than a fellow authoritarian like Putin, himself a role model of “male perfection” (as Trump may view him). There might of course be many other factors at work here, including the fact that Trump would feel a natural affinity for another authoritarian who projects disgust at a shared “out-group” (Muslims). The danger, however, is that two authoritarian narcissists make for a very unstable couple. We can only hope that they can resolve whatever problems arise between them by directly comparing their genitals, rather than by launching missiles at each other (and at us).

At this uncertain moment of history, at the very beginning of the Trump Era, my hope is that the authoritarian tendencies Trump has displayed, the obvious (Frankfurtian) bullshit he has spouted, and the negative emotions he has projected, have been mostly for show. Perhaps he is actually more intelligent and compassionate than he seems. Barring that, I hope that he has grown-ups around him – perhaps some of his children! – who can help to mitigate his worst instinctive reactions. The best that can be said of Trump is that his thought processes seem not to be orderly enough to sustain a coherent ideology (for evidence, just try to make sense of his meanderings during this New York Times interview). However, we can only hope that a disorderly mind is not a precursor to a truly disordered one. If it is, philosophy might be our only consolation.

Resentment and Statistics

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In last Sunday’s Oshkosh Northwestern, Andrew Austin, an associate professor and chair of the Democracy and Justice Studies department at UW Green Bay, wrote a spot-on commentary concerning Governor Scott Walker’s misleading use of statistics as he continues to demean the state’s university system-

His office shared with the media that UW-Green Bay full professors (the highest teaching rank attainable in higher education and a small proportion of the faculty) averaged $70,700 in salaries in the 2013-14 academic year, a figure he contrasts with the average annual pay for all workers in Brown County, which was, according to Walker, $44,894 in 2014 (roughly a third of the governor’s salary).

Walker is cherry-picking the highest rank of professor — full professor — and comparing it to the average for all workers, professional and non-professional, regardless of rank, an average that includes workers at McDonald’s, Walmart, and Family Dollar (who, I hasten to add, are underpaid).

Comparing apples to apples, that is professionals to professionals, the median salary for full-time tenured and tenured-track faculty at UW-Green Bay in 2015-16 (most of whom hold a doctorate) was $57,259. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the 2014 median earnings for workers in Brown County who have a graduate or professional degree is $61,092.

Has Walker complained about the salaries of other professionals? Has he railed against physicians (who make a good deal more than professors)? What is it about teachers that riles the governor?

In addition to noting Walker’s cherry-picking of the data, Austin astutely battles averages with medians, since averages are highly unreliable indicators of general trends. Consider 10 people in a bar, each making $50,000 a year. In walks Donald Trump, whose annual income in a good year has been estimated to be around $362,000,000. Now, if you wanted to know in general how most people in the bar were doing, financially speaking, it would be far less misleading to say that they tend to be earning $50,000, the median, than to say that they tend to be earning a whopping $32,954,545, the average. A few highly paid academic “stars” can similarly skew average salary data. But Walker’s office clearly isn’t concerned with misleading the citizenry.

Bernie Supporters: Beware What You Wish For

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Hillary & Bernie 2

It’s nail-biting time for liberals and progressives as the primary season slogs on and neither Hillary Clinton nor Bernie Sanders have the Democratic Party nomination totally nailed down. Things got ugly this week in Nevada, when Bernie supporters became – justifiably or not – “unruly” after a series of iffy moves on the convention floor by Hillary supporters. Now the prospect looms large of there being boisterous and – if we take “Bernie or Bust” literally – perhaps violent demonstrations at the Philadelphia convention. And beyond that looms the even more horrifying prospect of a divided opposition that would allow Trump (let alone Trumpism) to prevail.

Like many on the left side of the political spectrum, I had a hard time choosing between Bernie and Hillary this year. I can’t write off the difficulty of my choice to a battle between heart and mind; neither of these candidates appeal to my heart. Rather, living in Wisconsin, I’ve seen what can happen when Republicans are ineffectively opposed and as a result come to control all the power centers of government; such one-party rule here hasn’t been pretty (to put it mildly). Bernie impressed me with his clear-headedness and sheer energy at his age (I’m more than 10 years younger and I doubt I could handle his schedule), and I found his positions on the most important issues – getting Big Money out of politics, working seriously to lessen income inequality, and getting rid of “too big to fail” financial institutions – more coherent than Hillary’s. On the other hand, I found Hillary’s position on college affordability and her incrementalism on Obamacare more realistic than Bernie’s more progressive approaches. But I was bothered by her refusal to release her Goldman Sachs speeches; it played right into the Republican conspiracy theories about her and Bill, and would surely weaken her in the general election. Finally, after talking to some more ardent Bernie supporters, I also came to believe that although nearly all Hillary supporters would support Bernie if he became the nominee, a significant number of Bernie supporters would not support Hillary. Whether she could make up the difference with “moderate centrists” was – and remains – an open question, but with Trump (or at that time Cruz) as the most likely alternatives, the openness of that question became decisive for me. So I ended up voting for Bernie, as did most Wisconsinites in the primary (he got 567,936 total votes, more than either Hillary, Cruz or Trump).

Now, as it seems clear that Hillary will become the Democratic nominee, I’m hoping that Bernie hasn’t let his newly developed national popularity go to his head. I’m hoping that he hasn’t deluded himself into thinking that it’s a sign that the country is ready for a “political revolution”; demonstrating that would require that his young supporters actually show up to vote in midterm elections to help elect a new Senate and House. I’m also hoping that his increasingly “dug-in” positions on process and policy are bargaining chips to make Hillary as progressive as he can make her, and not non-negotiable items that will cause a split in the party. Spurred on by Bernie’s remarks about closed primaries, many of his supporters are pressing for all Democratic primaries to be “open”, so that non-Party members can participate. That is a very dangerous idea, since open primaries allow Republicans to cast the decisive votes (see this article, or this one). It would be far better for Bernie to urge all of his independent supporters to become Democrats, and take over the party from within. Now that would be a political revolution!

No, Senator Rubio: Welders Do Not Make More Than Philosophers

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An ongoing meme among Republican politicians is that a university education is over-rated, particularly if one is interested in majoring in anything other than a STEM field. I’ve heard Art History dismissed, as well as Anthropology and a number of other social sciences and humanities programs. Florida Senator Marco Rubio was the latest politician to dismiss a non-STEM and non-vocational major, one that is especially dear to my heart: philosophy. Here is what he said, along with the debunking by Politifact:

“For the life of me, I don’t know why we have stigmatized vocational training,” Rubio said. “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.”

It was a big moment in the debate for Rubio, but was he correct? Philosophically and statistically speaking, no.

Both government and private sector research show philosophy majors make more money than welders, and with much more room to significantly increase pay throughout their careers.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median wage for welders, cutters, solderers and brazers is $37,420 — about $18 an hour. According to Payscale, a company that collects salary information, philosophy majors make an average first-year salary of $42,200. The average mid-career pay for philosophy majors is even better: $85,000 per year. We rated Rubio’s statement False.

Politifact was not the only outfit that immediately recognized that Rubio’s statement was false. The first debunking I found came only minutes after Rubio said it, at the Associated Press. This was followed shortly thereafter by the Washington Post.

What is sad is not just the increasing tendency of Republican presidential hopefuls to spout falsehoods, pandering to their anti-intellectual base in order to win the primary. It is also the general cultural background that allows such remarks to initially sound plausible to a surprising number of people, with the result that public universities become the lowest priority in state budgets.

UPDATE: Senator Rubio’s penchant for speaking without thinking seems to be continuing: after the ISIS attack on Paris, he described the West’s fight with that terrorist group as “a clash of civilizations”. But,of course, there’s nothing civilized about ISIS. The only current civilization to which they are even distantly related is the Islamic world of over a billion people, and if Rubio wishes to characterize the fight against ISIS and similar groups as a clash between liberal civilization and that civilization, he is doing both civilizations a grave disservice.

On Governor Walker’s Plan To Slash The UW System’s Budget

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I’ve been pretty quiet over the last couple of years when it comes to commenting on Wisconsin politics. There seems to be very little left to say about the state Republican Party’s war on the public sector, and especially on public education at all levels. But what little there is left to say was well said by a couple of guests on Joy Cardin’s WPR show a few days ago, especially by the self-identifying conservative UW History Professor, John Sharpless. Here’s the first 30 minutes of that conversation-

Oh… and could someone please remind the Governor that Wisconsin Underpays Its Professors?

Political Microtargeting Alienates Supporters

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Have you been interminably microtargeted by political interest groups that you’ve financially supported in the past? If so, perhaps you can relate to the cynical attitude I’ve developed about the whole process, and why I’ve opted out of four or five overlapping political-interest email lists over the past few weeks.

I don’t have anything negative to say about the microtargeting of undecided voters in the months shortly before an election. This allows campaigns to maximize the efficiency of their operations, and since I’m almost always well-decided well before election day, I appreciate being passed over by the in-person hard-sellers (and so does Katie, our dog, who freaks out at the slightest hint of a visitor at the door). But what has increasingly come to irritate me are the endless email invitations I receive from movements I’ve financially supported in the past – invitations that are clearly seeking ever-more specific information about my particular interests in order to follow up with more specific pleas for funds. If I thought that my signing a petition or taking a poll authored by these groups would have any political impact whatsoever, including altering the priorities of the groups themselves, I might participate. But since the petitions and polls are so transparently merely ploys to gather more data about me for further fundraising purposes, they just cause me to lose interest in the entire political process.

A brief web-search on the topic of political microtargeting indicates that even those who agree with me that such microtargeting “dehumanizes” individuals (by treating them as mere data-points and potential resources to exploit) seldom condemn it. Rather, they cynically accept it as a political necessity. But political parties and interest groups, as well as commercial corporations, ought to beware of the long-term effects their marketing practices might have. Politically conscious individuals may at some point say, “Microtargeted-to enough already!”, and find alternative ways to form political and economic alignments.

David Simon On The “Horror Show” That Is America

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I’m a big fan of David Simon’s classic HBO series, The Wire, as well as his more recent project, Treme. He’s a clear-eyed, street-smart social critic who understands the limits of both capitalism and Marxism, and consistently avoids viewing individuals or groups as exclusively victims or victimizers. If Simon has an ideological commitment, it is to try to safeguard the intrinsic value of human beings against the devaluation that usually occurs when capitalists and capitalist institutions regard them merely as costs. His thinking isn’t particularly subtle, but it is refreshingly direct and to the point. Here’s an excerpt from a column he recently published in the Guardian, which is worth reading in its entirety-

I’m utterly committed to the idea that capitalism has to be the way we generate mass wealth in the coming century. That argument’s over. But the idea that it’s not going to be married to a social compact, that how you distribute the benefits of capitalism isn’t going to include everyone in the society to a reasonable extent, that’s astonishing to me.

And so capitalism is about to seize defeat from the jaws of victory all by its own hand. That’s the astonishing end of this story, unless we reverse course. Unless we take into consideration, if not the remedies of Marx then the diagnosis, because he saw what would happen if capital triumphed unequivocally, if it got everything it wanted.

And one of the things that capital would want unequivocally and for certain is the diminishment of labour. They would want labour to be diminished because labour’s a cost. And if labour is diminished, let’s translate that: in human terms, it means human beings are worth less.

From this moment forward unless we reverse course, the average human being is worth less on planet Earth. Unless we take stock of the fact that maybe socialism and the socialist impulse has to be addressed again; it has to be married as it was married in the 1930s, the 1940s and even into the 1950s, to the engine that is capitalism.

Mistaking capitalism for a blueprint as to how to build a society strikes me as a really dangerous idea in a bad way. Capitalism is a remarkable engine again for producing wealth. It’s a great tool to have in your toolbox if you’re trying to build a society and have that society advance. You wouldn’t want to go forward at this point without it. But it’s not a blueprint for how to build the just society. There are other metrics besides that quarterly profit report.

The idea that the market will solve such things as environmental concerns, as our racial divides, as our class distinctions, our problems with educating and incorporating one generation of workers into the economy after the other when that economy is changing; the idea that the market is going to heed all of the human concerns and still maximise profit is juvenile. It’s a juvenile notion and it’s still being argued in my country passionately and we’re going down the tubes. And it terrifies me because I’m astonished at how comfortable we are in absolving ourselves of what is basically a moral choice. Are we all in this together or are we all not?

(Thanks Erik).

Minnesota Versus Wisconsin (Redux)

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I recently noted that Minnesota, with its proactive implementation of the Affordable Care Act through its state-run exchange, enjoys significantly lower premiums for comparable insurance policies than Wisconsin, with its reluctant implementation of the Act through the federal exchange. Job recovery is yet another dimension of this Tale Of Two States, as Lawrence R. Jacobs noted in a recent New York Times Op-Ed

A month after Mr. Walker’s inauguration in January 2011, he catapulted himself to the front ranks of national conservative leaders with attacks on the collective bargaining rights of Civil Service unions and sharp reductions in taxes and spending. Once Mr. Dayton teamed up with a Democratic Legislature in 2012, Minnesota adopted some of the most progressive policies in the country.

Minnesota raised taxes by $2.1 billion, the largest increase in recent state history. Democrats introduced the fourth highest income tax bracket in the country and targeted the top 1 percent of earners to pay 62 percent of the new taxes, according to the Department of Revenue.

Which side of the experiment — the new right or modern progressivism — has been most effective in increasing jobs and improving business opportunities, not to mention living conditions?

Obviously, firm answers will require more time and more data, but the first round of evidence gives the edge to Minnesota’s model of increased services, higher costs (mostly for the affluent) and reduced payments to entrenched interests like the insurers who cover the Medicaid population.

Three years into Mr. Walker’s term, Wisconsin lags behind Minnesota in job creation and economic growth. As a candidate, Mr. Walker promised to produce 250,000 private-sector jobs in his first term, but a year before the next election that number is less than 90,000. Wisconsin ranks 34th for job growth. Mr. Walker’s defenders blame the higher spending and taxes of his Democratic predecessor for these disappointments, but according to Forbes’s annual list of best states for business, Wisconsin continues to rank in the bottom half.

Along with California, Minnesota is the fifth fastest growing state economy, with private-sector job growth exceeding pre-recession levels. Forbes rates Minnesota as the eighth best state for business. Republicans deserve some of the credit, particularly for their commitment to education reform. They also argue that Minnesota’s new growth stems from the low taxes and reduced spending under Mr. Dayton’s Republican predecessor, Tim Pawlenty. But Minnesota’s job growth was subpar during Mr. Pawlenty’s eight-year tenure and recovered only under Mr. Dayton.

Republicans often argue, quite cogently, that the states should be the laboratories of democracy. Given these comparisons two such demographically and geographically similar states, progressive Democrats should certainly agree.

More Competition + Less Regulation = Higher Prices

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At least when it comes to the insurance rates charged for comparable plans in Minnesota and Wisconsin under The Affordable Care Act, the conservative mantra that more competition plus less regulation is the way to lower health insurance prices is clearly false, according to an informative story published in the Oshkosh Northwestern yesterday (Sunday 11/10/2013).

When Minnesota state lawmaker Joe Atkins hunkered down to draft legislation outlining the way Minnesota would implement the Affordable Care Act, he had no idea the results would be so dramatic. The Gopher State is now enrolling individuals through its health-insurance exchange by the thousands and at health insurance premium rates that are among the lowest in the country. Next door in Wisconsin, the numbers of Obamacare enrollees have barely hit the hundreds and premium rates are between 25 and 35 percent higher than in Minnesota.

The reason for the large gap in rates is unclear but could be, in part, because of the more aggressive approach Minnesota has taken to implementing the law. The most obvious difference between the two states is their exchanges. Minnesota has its own online marketplace where residents and small businesses can shop for and buy insurance, while Wisconsin is relying on the federal government marketplace, which has been plagued with bugs and technical failures and doesn’t accommodate small businesses. If and when the Obama administration fixes that, the rate differentials will remain. And they are stark.

A 50-year-old Minnesotan who lives just south of the Twin Cities in Dakota County can buy a mid-level, silver plan for $241 a month. Just 20 miles away, across the state line in St. Croix County, the least expensive silver plan available to a 50-year-old Wisconsinite costs nearly three times that price — $622 a month.

Analysts say premiums are based on a number of factors, from health costs and demographics to market competitiveness. But when it comes to Wisconsin and Minnesota, none of those appears to account for such a wide disparity. The nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation found that health care costs in the two states are roughly the same. Per capita expenditures were $7,409 in Minnesota versus $7,233 in Wisconsin, according to the most recent data released in 2011 by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. And the costs have grown annually since 1991 at nearly the same rate — 6.7 percent in Wisconsin and 7 percent in Minnesota. As for competitiveness, only five insurers are offering plans on the Minnesota exchange. Wisconsin’s exchange has 13 carriers.

Cynthia Cox, a policy analyst at the Kaiser foundation, said regulation also plays a role in premium levels. In Minnesota, regulators forced insurers in several cases to resubmit lower rates because they questioned the justifications. In Wisconsin, regulators took a more hands-off approach and let all the rates go through as-is after reviewing carriers’ justifications.

“The fundamental difference between the two states, which are similar geographically and demographically and have very similar underlying medical costs, is that Minnesota has embraced the national health care reform law and is using the tools it provides to deliver more affordable health insurance, while the Walker administration has tried to undermine the law at every turn,” Citizen Action CEO Robert Kraig and researcher Kevin Kane wrote in a scathing op-ed recently published in The Capital Times of Madison.

Why I Support Obama On Syria

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One word: ignorance. My own.

The fact is, I don’t understand the situation in Syria. I doubt that the vast majority of Americans do. For that reason, I’m glad that I don’t make Syria policy, and I’m also glad that the majority of Americans, many of whom could not find Syria on a map, don’t make it. But I do pay taxes, and I expect my taxes to help pay for the best intelligence and foreign policy expertise in the world. I also trust Obama’s basic ability to make good use of that intelligence and expertise. He’s clearly not interested in starting unnecessary wars (unlike some other presidents we’ve had recently). So, until I hear some good reason to think that he’s mistaken, I’ll continue to support his efforts. Frankly, I’m surprised that so many of his supporters on other issues won’t give him the benefit of the doubt on this.

There are also many moral arguments in favor of action, but the sorts of simple analogies that sometimes suffice fall short when the situation is so complicated, and more theoretical arguments are notoriously unpersuasive unless one is already prepared to accept the conclusion. We are, however, presumably talking about the intentional gassing of children and other innocents. If the reasonable desire to prevent more of that doesn’t create at least a prima facie case in favor of acting, I don’t know what does.

Of course, there is no need to act militarily on this issue if current diplomatic efforts to neutralize Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal succeed. But I buy the argument that they will succeed only if a credible threat of military action is maintained. Obama requires all the political support he can get in order to maintain that threat’s credibility.

To remind you of just what Obama’s policy preferences actually are, rather than how they’ve been distorted in the media and on the net (on both the Left and the Right), here’s a video of his speech last night-

Finally, for those who suggest that military action should be ruled out because any such action would strengthen the more radical opposition to Assad, consider this exchange between Fareed Zakaria and French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy (with ellipses added for clarity):

ZAKARIA: One of the reasons I was supportive of the intervention in Libya was it struck me that there were many forces in Libya that were pro-Western, secular, you could [see] them, you could talk to them, you could understand how they wanted to shape the country. In Syria, do you worry that so many of the forces seem to be quite sectarian … because the regime was very sectarian. I mean it was an Alawite regime that radicalized its opposition, remember, Hama, … so, … there’s a radicalization of the opposition that makes me worry, who are these people … you see the violence that they, the opposition is able to perpetrate.

LEVY: Of course. There is a radicalization of the opposition. That’s true, undeniable. But on the other side, on Bashar al Assad, everybody seems to forget that the allies of Bashar al Assad, Iran, the ayatollahs of Iran who are not, as far as I know, moderates. Hezbollah, who are the best warriors of Bashar al-Assad. … Hamas, which was sheltered, the political headquarters of Hamas was in Damascus. So you have radical Islam in the two sides. But … if the West intervenes … you will see how the landscape in the opposition will move. If Obama does not strike, the radical Islamists will take the lead. If the West appears to be on the good side, which is the side of the people, the radical Islamists will lose ground in the opposition. It is always like this. When the West takes the lead, the pro-West take advantage. When the West is Munich spirit, then the radical Islamists take credit for the fall of the dictator, they take credit for the revolution as in Egypt with the Muslim Brothers and it’s bad for everybody. That’s one of the other reasons why it was so important … for the international community for the West, for America, for France to build this strong alliance with some Arab countries and so on.

For a more complete transcript of their conversation, click here.

Happy Fourth of July

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You know, I sang Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” countless times in elementary school, but I’m quite sure we never sang the last three verses. On this Independence Day, as many state politicians seek to sell off public property, discourage public education, and generally devalue the very notion of a public sector, here’s the whole gall-darn beautiful song-

This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.

I’ve roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts;
And all around me a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling,
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting:
This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me

President Obama’s Climate Change Speech

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Amazingly, at least in my neck of the woods, only one cable news network covered President Obama’s full speech on climate change policy today: Fox Business, which immediately followed it with an interview of an electric company executive who is investing heavily in coal. Interestingly, even he had to be goaded by the hosts into criticizing the policies outlined in the speech. The other cable news providers, even MSNBC, had other stories that they deemed more important. So I’m linking to a video of the speech here, and I would urge everyone who has heard about it only second-hand to watch it. Although it’s not one of Obama’s best-delivered speeches, what with the heat in D.C. today (not a bad way of setting the scene, given the speech’s topic), the policies outlined in it are significant.

The President’s failure in the past to act more decisively and to speak more explicitly on the climate problem has disappointed me. I’m no longer disappointed.

An Atheistic Conscientious Objector Wins Citizenship

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Finally, a win for reason against the age-old prejudice that moral conviction can only be justified by religious affiliation. As the Huffington Post reported:

Margaret Doughty, an atheist and legal resident whose application for U.S. citizenship was nearly rejected this month over her non-religious opposition to war, will become a naturalized citizen next week, the blog Divided Under God first reported on Thursday.

According to Divided Under God, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services decided to retract a demand that Doughty show proof “on official church stationery” that her stated conscientious objector status was a function of her being a “member in good standing” of a pacifist religious group. Here’s the text of a letter she received from her congressional Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), who intervened in the matter:

“This Service hereby withdraws the request for evidence (RFE) issued on June 7, 2013. This Service accepts your detailed statement in satisfaction of the information requested by the RFE. Your application for naturalization has been approved.”

Doughty, who has lived in the U.S. for more than 30 years, is set to be officially naturalized on June 26.

If Congressperson Blake Farenthold really was instrumental in convincing the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to reconsider its initial demand that Doughty join a church, he’s to be commended – particularly since he is otherwise quite clearly a very conservative Republican. Perhaps it was just his dislike of the federal bureaucracy that trumped his party’s extreme distaste for atheists, but at least the consequences were good in this case.