Category Archives: Politics

Monday’s Mtg: Was communism right about anything?

Communism?  Really?

Sure, soaring economic inequality and our increasingly plutocratic politics have revived interest in class-based social analysis. But, the 20th century saw communism fail spectacularly as any kind of just or effective governing philosophy. Moreover, the 21st century is grounded in universal values that communist regimes were fundamentally hostile to, like democracy, constitutionally-limited government, and a mixed economy.  A handful of countries still call themselves socialist in the Marxist sense (China, North Korea, Cuba, etc.). But no one thinks they mean it.

Marxism is more than just a failed governing philosophy, however. (You may not even agree it failed; we could debate that.) Marxist thought was also a very well-developed system for critiquing capitalism.  Communist doctrine may be relevant today as a tool for analyzing what has gone wrong with global capitalism – and thus with democracy, even though Marx held that bourgeoisie democracy as a mere cover for capitalist greed and exploitation.  Understanding the ideas behind what some call “cultural Marxism” may help us to understand some of the structural factors that let the few continue to exploit the many in society.

I propose we start the meeting by discussing what Marxism “stands for.” It might be helpful to identify four distinct historical stages of Marxist thought:

  1. Phase 1 (1848-1917): The purely theoretical and academic phase. Mainly Marx’s philosophy and critique of where capitalism seemed to be inevitably heading, plus his vague, Romantic ideas for how to prevent that future.
  2. Phase 2 (1918-1950s or so): The state-centered ascendant phase of Soviet and Chinese led communism. Revolutionary and totalitarian. A fusion of pre-modern absolutism with new “scientific” justifications.
  3. Phase 3 (1960s-1989): The post-colonial/anti-colonial phase. Marxist-Leninism fuses with third world nationalism and adapts to local conditions (including tribalism and local leaders’ lust for power). Per Lenin, severe critique of Western-led capitalism-based globalization.
  4. Phase 4:  Post-modern Marxism (I made up that term).  Marxism as an explainer of underlying power relationships in society that oppress marginalized groups.

The point is whether communism got anything “right” requires more than just pointing out its monstrous cruelty in power. That god has failed and likely won’t be back.  Marxian ways of thinking about modern capitalism may provide insight into how we got into the economic mess we are in and how to get out of it.

On Monday I will briefly introduce the main tenets of Marxist political philosophy (I know a bit but not a lot).  Then we can dive right in. Here are some readings I found interesting.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Are kids made or born?

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Monday’s Mtg: Do parliamentary systems produce better governments?

Americans continue to bemoan our paralyzed and ineffective political system. Even when it’s 108 degrees outside. Yeech. As we have discussed, some of the problem may be inherent in the structures of our political system and the way we hold elections. One particularly intriguing idea is for the United States to adopt features of a parliamentary system of government.

To go full-on parliamentary is a bit of a pipe dream since it would entail amending the unamendable Constitution. Yet, there are ways the United States could change its electoral systems that would let us capture some of the benefits of parliamentary systems. There are many different variations of the parliamentary model around the world and other presidential systems, too. So, it is hard to directly compare a generic version of the two. Moreover, the U.S. political system has some unusual/unique features beyond anything change to parliamentary procedures could change, so we couldn’t necessarily just adopt some and expect similar results.

From what I understand, the basic arguments in favor of parliamentary government include:

  1. CHOICE: They tend to produce more than two viable political parties and thus offer voters more choices, and third parties can wield substantial influence sometimes.
  2. ELECTIONS: Campaigns are shorter and harder to buy with big money. Unpopular leaders and governments can be removed quickly via no confidence votes or snap elections.
  3. GOVERNANCE: Governments are more effective and accountable because the party that controls the legislature appoints the prime minister (no separation of powers), and voters can see clearly who to hold accountable.
  4. STABILITY: Parliamentary systems are less likely to produce authoritarian strong men, like in Venezuela or other (ahem) presidential systems.

On the other hand, some argue that parliamentary systems have their own problems. Voters do not directly elect the head of state. Coalitions can take months to form, be fragile, ad fall overnight in the middle of crises. Fringe political viewpoints get their own parties and (sometimes) outsized influence in coalition parties. There are fewer checks and balances and overreliance on permanent bureaucracies. And so forth.

It’s too hot to ask folks to binge read on political theory, IMO. So, here are just a few background articles that argue the advantages and disadvantages of the two systems. I will summarize the main arguments to open our meeting

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Was communism right about anything?

Monday’s Mtg: What binds Americans together?

What unites Americans on this polarized, pessimistic 4th of July? Unlike many other countries Americans are not a single people purportedly based on blood or soil or language. At least that’s not what they teach us as the being the American character or the American creed.

Instead, Americans are supposed to be bound together by (depending on who and when in our history you ask) a set of common civic and cultural values. You all know them: Love of individual liberty, pluralism, equal opportunity, mutual tolerance, among others. Some of these are laid out in our Constitution; others aren’t but are said to have developed organically. Either way, American unity is said to be an achievement, not a built-in identity.

We all know there is a huge asterisk, of course. American identity has always had some far earthier and even ugly components, especially white supremacy and, periodically xenophobia and authoritarianism.  Trump’s rise and 90% level of support in one political party may require us to focus more on the permanence of that asterisk.  Moreover, all of our national values are constantly being contested, as befitting a democracy (within limits).

So, what can we say binds Americans together in times like these? After you enjoy your holiday weekend, join us on Monday for a Civilized Conversation on this subject.

Here are some light readings that might spur your thoughts on this subject. As always they are optional.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Public opinion on –

What divides us –

What binds us together –

NEXT WEEK: Parliamentary systems – Do they make better governments?

Monday’s Mtg: Power and Privacy and Big Tech corporations

Here’s a hot issue. We discussed the problem of monopoly power a few weeks ago. But lots of people are starting to agree that giant technology companies are a special, and more worrisome, case. In less than twenty years a handful of gigantic, globe-spanning companies (like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple) have come to dominate key industries that are vital to our economy — and democracy. These include internet search engines, retail sales and on-line advertising, social media, news distribution, book publishing, and many major forms of entertainment.

The benefits to consumers these firms provide are of immense value to our economy, of course. We use them practically every most waking moment. Moreover, a lot of what they supply is free to consumers (at least at the point of sale) and the companies provide the necessary backbone of the internet, services like convenient search capability, transaction processing, and interoperable applications.

But, as with other monopolies, there are big concerns that Big Tech abuses it market power and its political influence in ways that harm us all. They restrict competition, retard innovation, finagle with prices and supplier wages, etc. This is before even considering Big Tech’s enormous lobbying clout that they (allegedly) use to lock in their market power via friendly laws and regulations.

Below, is some optional background reading on this topic. The articles favor the view that Big Tech is a Big Problem, but there are other ways of looking at the situation and how carefully public policy should tread in trying to regulate such a fast-moving industry.

Anyway, I will give the usual brief opening on Monday. I guess I will sum the basic idea behind the enough-is-enough argument. I know some of you have tech experience and the group I’m sure could benefit from hearing what you think in particular.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

The basics –

News –

Broader issues –  

NEXT WEEK: What binds Americans together (…anymore)?

Monday’s Mtg: Brinkmanship as a foreign policy tool.

It’s a tough time to aspire to have civilized conversations about anything related to American foreign policy, obviously. Since a president has more control over it than over domestic policy, Donald Trump has been able to take us into radical new terra incognito. He is openly wrecking our traditional alliances, realigning us with authoritarian powers and their dictators, and implementing Russia’s foreign policy wet dreams. He has pulled us out of long-standing international agreements and started trade wars. More broadly, Trump seems to view all international relations (and thus negotiations and crises) as zero-sum, with a dominant winner and a dominated loser.

[Update:  To be fair, Trump also might be able to accomplish some things, like an opening to North Korea that has to be done by somebody, sometime.  Putting “America first” doesn’t have to be belligerent and counterproductive, at least in its long-term effects.]

All of this is a profound departure from the consensus foreign policy that was the postwar norm. Yeah, yeah. We dominated the West, not always for the better, perhaps. But ther3 was also a strong consensus in favor of a multilateral and positive-sum approach; a belief that we needed other countries’ cooperation to help maintain U.S. security and prosperity and would prosper best in a rules-based commerce system.

To be sure, Trump’s precise goals and strategy are a bit unclear underneath all of the bluster and tweeting. But, one POV is that if Republican voters and elites continue to back him to the hilt Trump may take the GOP – and all of us – back to its pre-Cold War foreign policy rooted in mercantilism, belligerence, and xenophobia. Who cares about a little brinkmanship?

We all should.  Brinkmanship is inherently dangerous and requires very careful attention to both short-term tactics and long-term goals – and empathy with how adversaries think and what they feel.  Sound like Trump to you?  Worse, bullying and making wild threats until the other side backs down has been Trump’s core negotiating tactic all of his life.  He likely will use it as a first resort in almost every situation. The agreement he just cut with North Korea is only going to feed his confidence that making dire threats work like a charm, just like in real estate. Ooh, boy.

Moreover, it’s not just Trump.  At least some foreign policy brinkmanship is as American as apple pie. Kennedy used it in the Cuban missile crisis. Nixon and Kissinger played good-cop, madman-cop in Vietnam. Both George Bushes relied on showdown-style tactics in Iraq, with (ahem) varying results. The aforementioned postwar consensus was based on the threat of instant, massive nuclear retaliation after all, as we discussed a few weeks ago. Brinkmanship will always be with us, at least as a tool to pull off of the shelf by any president.

I will start off our meeting with a brief introduction. Then we can discuss whether Trump really is this radical departure from the norm and/or these questions.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What is brinkmanship? How differ from a strong diplomacy backed by a willingness to act?
  2. When has brinkmanship worked for the United States? Why? When did it fail? When was it not used when it almost/could have been used?
  3. Are there any general lessons about when brinkmanship might be necessary or foolhardy?
  4. Trump:
    1. How out of control is this guy re threat-making? Who can get him to dial it down? What would the country lose if they don’t?
    2. Will the public and GOP keep supporting his risky foreign policy? Why are they willing to do so?
  5. After Trump? Will brinkmanship go back in the bottle?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: What binds Americans together?

Monday’s Mtg (6/11/18): When I’m 164 – How will longer lifespans change our society?

This topic idea and its wording are blatantly stolen from a memorable 2012 cover story in the Atlantic Monthly. (In 2 parts, links below.) But, scientists all over the world are racing to find new ways to prolong the human lifespan. The idea that they could one day succeed has such enormous implications that a lot has been written on the subject in recent years. General interest magazines and popular science websites have been all over it, as have, obviously, more technical scientific publications.

We know that extending human lifespans by even another half-decade or so would have profound consequences for our society – because it already has. Since 1840, U.S. life expectancy has increased on average by about three months every year (source). Having longer, healthier lives (and far lower infant mortality) has vastly increased Americans’ health, wealth, and happiness. But, it also has required many changes to the way we live, work, and govern ourselves. What new changes will be necessary if Americans (and people around the world) one day routinely live to 100, or 125, or 164?

Here are a few general interest articles that discuss the promise and pitfalls of radically-enhanced lifespans. I also added an excellent one on how big a change it would be just to raise it to 100 years. Please see if you can read/skim/get the gist of at least the recommended readings. I will start us off on Monday with a brief overview of some of the major issues that are likely to arise if lifespans either continue their slow, steady rise or suddenly increase.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Big Data – Privacy and Power in a Brave New Age.

Monday’s Mtg (5/14/18): Status anxiety as a social and political force.

This is one of those topics that has no particular design or agenda lurking behind it. It was spurred by all of those studies and surveys that show that many Trump voters were motivated by anger at losing economic and/or social status in a 21st century economy an culture that (allegedly) devalues people like them. But, there are a number of different ways our discussion could go.

We could talk about the role that social status and social rank play in psychology and society. We could discuss the purported recent rise in generalized anxiety in the United States and try to relate it to social status concerns, especially those of Trump voters. We could even get into the role anxiety plays in say, adolescence, or examine anxiety disorders, like agoraphobia and PTSD.

Maybe some of you know something about these or other aspects of social status that are non-political. I don’t.  So after some reading (including the ones below) I will turn what I learn into a short introduction to open our meeting.

Also, I added some new meetings from our schedule to the Meet-up site. The dates for two meetings in June have been switched to accommodate someone who knows a lot about one of the topics and really wants to be there. The new order is:

  • June 18th – Brinksmanship as a foreign policy tool.
  • June 25th – Power and privacy in an age of Big Data corporations.

Trump’s meeting with North Korea’s leader is supposed to happen on June 12th, so that works out well. Revised hard copies will be available Monday.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Basics –

Is status anxiety on the rise?

Trump voters –

  • Loss of social status was their main motivator. Or was it?
  • Yeah it was, albeit in a complex way that deserves some sympathy. Recommended.
  • Unfairness: It was his voters’ sense of the unfair way their security and status were taken from them that was the motivator.  Long but a great read.

NEXT WEEK: Do the genders really communicate differently?

Monday’s Mtg (5/7/18): What does American conservatism stand for now?

Is this the future of political conservatism in America: Right-wing? For the moment, President Trump has made the Republican Party and the movement conservatism that dominates it anti-immigrant, openly corrupt, contemptuous of governing norms and legal restraints, and oddly schizophrenic on foreign policy.

Our questions for this week are two.  How real is all of this; i.e., has Trumpism taken over the conservative movement in substance or mainly in style? And how lasting will it prove?  Is Trump transforming U.S. conservatism or has he just borrowed it for a while?  To do this we will need to look at both what conservatism in America has been and what the Trumpists are trying to make it become.

Traditionally of course, American conservatism has been described as a coalition of interest groups and voters with a range of substantive needs and philosophical and ideological beliefs. Among these were the Religious Right and other culture warriors, big business, supply side-loving ideological elites, libertarian voters, and a mix of small town working class and upscale Whites. Over the last two decades several other major players have joined the conservative movement, notably the right-wing infotainment complex of talk radio, Fox News, and internet; and billionaire dark money donors like the Koch Brothers.

YMMV, but I found these distinctions less and less useful for understanding the conservative movement even before Trump. There is almost a universal consensus that in the last 20 years American conservative has grown increasingly united and ideological.  I think it is largely because of the growing dominance of those last two groups above, but there are other possible reasons.

So, maybe on Monday we could begin by trying to look at today’s conservatism (and thus tomorrow’s too) from some perspectives that might be more illuminating than just interest groups and ideology. Specifically:

  1. Psychological type and world view.
  2. Status in society, cultural as well as economic.
    –>  FYI, we can save some of this for next Monday’s mtg on status anxiety.
  3. Philosophy and ideology.
  4. Policy preferences.

This may seem like a tall order. But, as with progressives the Venn diagram of these four groups overlap quite a bit and, IMO, does a lot to explain the direction conservatism seems to be moving in. Of course, we must be careful not to reduce conservatism (or any other political belief) to a mere byproduct of its adherents’ cognitive makeup. Yet, I hope that thinking about conservatism in this way (political beliefs flow from cultural beliefs and worldviews as much as from material interests) will help us to shed more light than shadow on this topic.

This will be a busy, vibrant meeting. Thank you in advance for your self-restraint and empathy for your humble moderator. Mr. Humble will start the meeting with a short introduction that explains some of these different ways of thinking about what American conservatism is and what it “stands for.”

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Yesterday’s conservatism –

Today’s conservatism –

Tomorrow’s conservatism –

NEXT WEEK: Status anxiety as a social and political force.

Monday’s Mtg (4/22/18): Is the rule of law under serious assault in the United States?

How screwed are we? The Trump Administration’s open corruption and contempt for any person or institution, public or private, that challenges its power goes on apace. Republican Party leaders either stay silent or collaborate.Yet, does the Trump Administration really pose a serious threat to American democracy itself?  Is the rule of law here really so fragile that it can be toppled by one president and his enablers?

The answer will depend, obviously, on what is meant precisely by the “rule of law” and how strong the institutions and people that sustain it really are.  Oh, boy.

I will open our meeting on Monday with a brief soliloquy on what the term can mean and the role that different institution play in maintaining it. Then, we can debate how corrosive Trump’s actions and rhetoric have been, why he’s getting away with it (and is cheered for doing it!), and prospects for unwinding the damage, if any, in the future.

To preview what the topic is trying to get at, consider the words of one legal scholar:

…it is a mistake to focus on [Trump himself] rather than on the institutions that give rise to the rule of law. Leaders with authoritarian personality traits are common, but authoritarian governments exist only when surrounding institutions enable them to express their authoritarian impulses and do not throw up barriers to restrain them…As long as our legal and political institutions remain resilient, we need not worry about Trump becoming an authoritarian leader. And these institutions, ultimately, are made up of the beliefs, attitudes, commitments, and practices of the people who hold official positions.

Of course, in the long run the rule of law in a republic is sustained by a supportive public. Citizens must believe that the law and the political system that creates and enforces the law work for them.  See the last two discussion questions, below, for some reasons to worry about that, too.  If the tide of anger that Trump rode to the oval office never ebbs and is forever ignored by elites, it is hard to see a fully-democratic, non-authoritarian American future.

Lots of detailed links this week. Except for the recommended ones maybe consider them mainly as a reference source for the future.  Thank you in advance for being so civilized during this one.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Context:
    1. What is the “rule of law?” Why is it important + how relates to democracy? Which institutions and people are supposed to protect RoL – Congress, courts, political parties, news media, etc.? How important are norms?
    2. Did we have genuine rule of law before Trump? What/who was missing?
    3. How fragile is rule of law – lessons from U.S. history and abroad?
  2. Trump: How damaging have his actions + rhetoric really been to rule of law so far? How so? Evidence? Worst vs. overblown damage?
  3. Enablers – GOP: Why is the party of Lincoln supporting this?
    1. Practical/cynical: Electoral calculations, fear of GOP base, fear of Fox News conservative media, etc.
    2. They are authoritarians themselves.
  4. Enablers – Others:
    1. Democrats (centrists or left-wing)? Mainstream media? Social media? Passive voters? Angry voters – why?
    2. Events: 9/11, Great Recession, Electoral College, Russian bots?
  5. Future I: How bad will it get + how easily reversed?
    1. Trump era – Before 11/18, if Dems win in November, next 3 (!) years.
    2. After Trump: Will lawlessness and authoritarianism be a hallmark of the Party going forward? Will Dems follow?
  6. Future II: If economic/cultural anxiety persist or worsen (AI/robots, gig economy, rising inequality, rural decline) how can rule of law be…
    1. Sustained (or restored).
    2. Consistent with both liberty and social justice?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Trump and the rule of law –

Less alarmed POVs –

  • So far Trump’s efforts to undermine rule of law have been thwarted. We will survive this presidency, says Joe Scarborough.

NEXT WEEK: Do/should the USA support democracy worldwide?

Monday’s Mtg (3/26/18): Do we need another Eisenhower?

People have been pining for “another Eisenhower” off and on for decades. As with most historical analogies, the desire for another Eisenhower probably says more about the political views of those pining away for him than it does about our current problems and the type of political leadership that could address them.

Wanting an Ike-like president can mean one or more of several different things, I suppose. It can mean a desire to revive an extinct species: Moderate Republicans, along with a leader that can make the GOP accept the Great Society and its extensions the way Eisenhower accepted the New Deal. Or, maybe it reflects a yearning for a return of the bipartisan consensus politics of the 1950s and a politics of decency and civility. Or, maybe some folks just like the idea of a successful military leader who can knock a few heads together in Washington. a.

Obviously, Eisenhower’s presidency and 1950s politics and culture were not as rosy as some folk think they were. The 1950s were before civil rights revolution was completed and before equal rights for women and LGBT folks were even on the table. The Cold War was at its most dangerous heights. Moreover, unless you have a “great man” view of history, it is not very enlightening to compare one president’s managerial and personal style and to another’s.

However, I think it could be useful to examine two things. First, we can explore how the social and political structures of the Eisenhower era shaped political decisions and constrained the choices that could be made.

Yes, President Trump seems to make decisions more based on the last thing he saw on TV and desires for vengeance against enemies (real and imagined) than on the normal factors that shape presidential behavior. Still, no presidency is about one person even if this one thinks it is. Comparing today’s political and social climate to the one that Eisenhower and other political leaders of the era faced might be instructive for today – and tomorrow, assuming someday American politics returns from the ledge it has crawled out on.

Second, we could discuss the whole idea of consensus-based politics. Is bipartisanship and cooperation even possible anymore, or desirable? Our nation’s politics are so polarized, its problems are so daunting, and its international position so rapidly-weakening that perhaps a return to the kind of cautious incrementalism that consensus politics usually requires may not make much sense anymore. In my opening summary on Monday I will explain this POV a bit more and introduce some possible historical parallels that might make the Eisenhower presidency relevant to our current crisis.

We probably should get into foreign policy a fair amount, too. Yesterday, Trump picked uber-hawk John Bolton to be his national security advisor. An Islamophobic fringe figure who has repeatedly called for war with Iran and North Korea will control the flow of foreign policy information to our knowledge-challenged president. I cannot imagine a better time to talk about Eisenhower, a fervent Cold Warrior president that was also known to exercise “strategic restraint” and left office warning about the over-militarization of foreign policy.

This week’s optional readings include backgrounders on Eisenhower’s presidency and some comparisons of Ike to Trump and Obama. WWID: What would Ike do? Let’s figure it out Monday.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

His presidency –

Some specifics –

Comparisons –

 

NEXT WEEK: Will technology make war too easy?