Category Archives: Politics

Monday’s Mtg on Guns: Part II

Please focus any reading you do on the next post below.  However, after rereading that post (written in anger, albeit justified IMO) it is fair to make one more point that does more than blame one small group of people.  It takes more than just passionately anti-gun control citizens and politicians to stop all efforts to prevent future horrific mass shootings. It takes a general public that, in between high-profile massacres – places gun safety measures low down on its list of priorities and completely off the list of reasons why they vote how they do.

For more on this point, see here.

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Monday’s Mtg: Would serious gun control actually reduce crime/violence?

The madness continues. Yesterday’s massacre of 17 people at a Florida high school was, depending on how you count, the USA’s 18th school shooting this year – and it’s February! – and its 280th or so since the massacre at Columbine in 1999.  (Some estimates are lower.)  About 150,000 American school children in 170 schools have experienced a school shooting during that time, estimates the Washington Post, and this excludes gun suicides and accidents.

At times like this, one purpose Civilized Conversation can serve is to just to be a place to vent a little. That’s okay. But, if we are to live up to our name, it should be constructive venting and, well, civilized. Maybe we should explore at least these three big questions:

  1. Why does American’s immense level of gun violence never get addressed as a problem that has anything to do with guns?
  2. Which particular types of gun violence are better addressed by the mental health, law enforcement, or education systems?
  3. Which gun restrictions likely would work, based on what is known now?

Answering the first question requires us to take a dark journey into the world of the small but highly influential anti-government gun fetishist subculture. These folks are but a minority of gun owners and all gun owners do not deserve to be lumped in with them in liberals’ minds. But, they rule the realm in gun politics.  They are zealous and highly-organized, and the politicians that share their beliefs or fear them are the reason we never can have a serious debate over gun control.  Read one of the first two recommended links if you don’t know about how these people differ from regular gun collectors and folks trying to protect against home intruders.

Questions #2 and #3 are hard ones, too, and debating them was my original idea behind this topic. These days most liberals stop thinking about gun control once they identify the worst villains in our current story (NRA, militia groups, right-wing GOP politicians, etc.) Since serious gun control is off the table we end up moaning about trigger locks and background checks and never seriously consider which kinds of restrictions on firearms might actually be more than marginally effective at chipping away at our gun crime problem – if the political will ever coalesces.

The answers are not straightforward. They depends on things like –

  • Which gun-related problems (mass shootings, domestic violence-related, or violence associated with street crime) deserve to be our highest priority in general.
  • Extent to which easy gun availability causes or aggravates those problems.
  • What the existing evidence says about which (if any) new gun restrictions would do the most good.
  • At what cost (including to 2nd amendment principles, which exist whether progressives like them or not.). and
  • How on earth can NRA and similar opposition can be overcome.

Here is the usual long list of OPTIONAL background readings with the most useful ones highlighted. New topics for March – July will be available on Monday, too. (h/t Gale and Ken for helping select.)

A reminder:  All points of view will be welcome at Civilized Conversation. Participants must be respected.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Political system obstacles –

What (if any) gun control might help?

NEXT WEEK: -gates and domes: Lessons from past presidential corruption.

Monday’s Mtg: How should government incorporate scientific advice?

I think we need more science topics in the future, too. We have done a number of them over the years, from climate change to cloning. All of them involve government policy – and therefore politics.  Luckily, Penny suggested Monday’s topic, a bigger picture look at how government incorporates scientific advice.

Most Americans probably think science policy is all about either public funding of scientific R&D or of specific policy areas that rely heavily on hard science, like environmental policy and medical research. Plus maybe patents and university funding.  But, in the modern world, just about everything government does requires listening to scientific advice and technical experts. For hard science, there is environmental policy, public health, criminal justice, and agriculture, just to name a few. If you include economics and other social sciences, you can throw in practically everything else governments do, from financial regulation to education to welfare policy. This “science in policy and politics” issue is more what I had in mind for Monday.

Why is this worth discussing? Shouldn’t politicians and bureaucrats just “let the science decide” by “listening to the experts?”  As I will explain further in my opening remarks, not exactly.  For starters, scientific study does not always point to a single, optimum policy.  Uncertainty can be high and scientific consensus can change. More importantly, optimum for whom?  Science cannot tell us which values and whose interests should matter the most. Scientists can’t weigh all of the non-scientific (like legal and diplomatic) considerations and their recommendations are not always practical, politically viable, or affordable. These are all political decisions, and rightly so.

I guess this topic requires us to dig into (sigh) Trump and his Administration’s policies. The overt hostility to expertise and scientific advice of the Administration that invented the term “alternative facts” has received a lot of press attention. Experts on federal advisory committees have resigned or been fired in droves. Government reports and websites have been altered to downplay (suppress?) experts opinion on climate change, family planning, and even terrorism. Climate policies re being reversed. What’s occurred is not as dire as many progressives say – at least not yet. Nor can it all fairly be called, “anti-science,” IMO. Yet, something more or less systematic is being done and it’s only going to accelerate.

I will open our meeting by explaining what I know about how scientific advice gets incorporated into government decision-making. There are structures and processes. Then, we can talk about general principles, Trump’s machinations at the EPA or wherever, or anything else related to this topic. We have a number of scientists and other technical experts in Civilized Conversation, and I am looking forward to hearing what they think.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: What should all Americans know about the Constitution?

Monday’s Mtg: The Electoral College and the Problem of Minority Rule

This topic was Penny’s idea and it is not hard to see where it came from. As most of you know, in 2 of the last 5 presidential elections the loser of the popular vote won office because his (Bush 2000 and Trump 2016) votes were distributed in a way that filled the inside straight required by the antique Electoral College. That is, both men won bare majorities in a combination of states that, taken together, are where a majority of the electorate lives. No other democratic country selects its chief of state in such a way.

We have discussed anti-democratic features of U.S. political system several times before recently. In April 2017 we discussed undemocratic features of the Constitution, of which the Electoral College is merely one, and in November we debated whether the United States really legitimately can be called a democracy.

What’s left? I think this go around would be a good time to discuss two issues in particular.

  1. The National Popular Vote (NPV) initiative. This interstate compact would allow the Electoral College to be effectively bypassed, require no congressional or presidential approval, and be perfectly constitutional. And –
  2. Whether the undemocratic features of our entire political system (not just Constitution) have grown to favor a specific type of minority rule: That of a particular political party, the Republican Party.

For the EC/NPV discussion, we can go over the origins and purposes of the Electoral College, the pros and cons of keeping it, and the NPV and other solutions that would modify the Electoral College rather than abolish it altogether. I think progressives sometimes overstate the extent to which our political system puts its thumb on the scale for the GOP. Yet, there are reasons to be concerned, especially if the current Republican leadership can pull off a few more tricks, like further weakening voting rights and eliminating the last vestiges of campaign financing limits. YMMV.

I will start our meeting by explaining the basic pros and cons of the Electoral College and the NPV initiative.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK:  Should children be raised with gender-neutral expectations?

Monday’s Mtg: Is election-tampering a new form of warfare?

Welcome back from our two week break! It was nice for me to get off of the treadmill for a while. But, given how important this first topic of 2018 is, I’m glad to be back hampstering away.

That the United States has been a victim of foreign interference in the 2016 election it is now pretty much beyond dispute. This is true even if there is no way to know whether Russian actions significantly swayed the outcome, and no matter the degree of collaboration by the Trump campaign the special prosecutor eventually finds. Moreover, the issue of election tampering will intensify over the next few years.

Of course, Russia, the United States, and other countries routinely try to sway politics in other countries, including electoral outcomes. We make key concessions in negotiations to help a friendly government win its next election. We fund the development of civil society institutions overseas and even opposition political parties. During the Cold War, both sides conducted elaborate propaganda and disinformation campaigns. And, yes, we have a sordid record of facilitating regime change, including of democratically-elected governments.

What is new to worry about? From what I read, mainly two things: The tools used to interfere in elections have evolved in dangerous ways, and some of our major adversaries (notably Russia) have a strengthened interest in sewing chaos and public feelings of illegitimacy in Western political systems. In other words, interfering in elections themselves, not just in politics, is becoming easier and it’s being done to us. For the moment craven Republicans in Congress don’t seem to care much. But, people at all levels of American government are working furiously on this problem

Which types of threats should we most worry about, and what can be done to stop them? I think a good start would be to distinguish different types of interference tools and objectives so we can better distinguish the same old same old political meddling from actual attempts to sabotage our electoral institutions and systems. So, on Monday I will open our meeting by trying to do just that. Then we can talk about Trump/Russia, propaganda in an age of social media, and how best to protect our democracy from these news threats.

I don’t see how we can avoid the astonishing specter of the Trump campaign’s collaboration with a foreign power and the GOP’s spineless acquiescence to it. But, I hope we can talk about larger issues, too.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Russia and Trump: What do we know (so far from the public sources)? What remains unknown? Will GOP ever take it seriously? Endgame.
  2. Types of election “interference?”  Overt v. covert. Legal v. illegal. Influence v. sabotage? Campaigns v. electoral systems?
  3. History lessons: How common has this sort of thing been – including by USA? Does it work? Morality/backlash issues.
  4. Vulnerability: How vulnerable are we now and why? Federal? State/local? News media? Social media? The voters?? Why has so little been done?
  5. Policy: What are best ways to prevent improper interference? Modernizing election systems? Deterrence with offensive capability? Negotiations?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: The Electoral College and a workaround.

Monday’s Mtg: Does the “paranoid political style” dominate U.S. politics now?

American politics seems to be gravely afflicted these days with an old virus: The paranoid political style. The term “paranoid style” was coined in 1964 by historian Richard Hofstadter, first in a speech and then in an essay in Harper’s Magazine that later became a book. I wanted us to explore the extent to which that style now dominates our American politics, why it has returned with such a vengeance, and whether it will persist. I think it’ here to stay.

Hofstadter wrote that:

“American politics…has served again and again as an arena for uncommonly angry minds. Today this fact is most evident on the extreme right wing, which has shown, particularly in the Goldwater movement, how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. Behind such movements there is a style of mind, not always right-wing in its affiliations, that has a long and varied history. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”

“…[To] the modern right-wing wing…America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialist and communist schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners but major statesmen seated at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors discovered foreign conspiracies; the modem radical right finds that conspiracy also embraces betrayal at home.”

Sounds familiar? Hofstadter’s explanation has been used for years to explain right-wing (but NOT all conservative) politics. Lots of commenters are using it today to try to make sense of Trumpism and its capture of the Republican Party.

The theory of the paranoid political style has its critics. In the 1960s it was pointed out that it fails to take conservative philosophy and ideas seriously and comes close to defining conservatism as a mental aberration. (Hofstadter said he was not using the term paranoid clinically.) Also, Hofstadter suggested that the paranoid style is only a feature of right-wing politics American politics. Subsequent events in the late 1960s showed that the American left-wing can appeal to rage, paranoia, and conspiracy theories, too.

Fast forward 50+ years to first the Tea Party and now Donald Trump, and I think we have to ask hard questions. Is this a triumph of the paranoid style we’re seeing, or something else? If so, who or what is to blame and will it outlast Trump’s presidency?

As you know, I have my chief culprits. Fox News and right-wing talk radio have exploited fear and resentment and pushed conspiracy theories for 20 years straight. If you have avoided paying attention to what gets repeated every day in these forums, you really should take a look. Just skim some of the daily output of Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Seann Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Coulter, Malkin, D’Souza, and Alex Jones. If they are not pushing the paranoid style, then the term has no meaning.

Or is that too easy? Surely we cannot just blame right-wing media for creating all of this fear and anxiety out of thin air. In the last 15 years the USA has experienced the worst attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor and a continuous, seemingly permanent state of war against shadowy and frightening new enemies that target U.S. civilians. The worst recession in 80 years trashed the economy and the folks that cause it got off with barely a slap on the wrist. Our government is paralyzed and helpless – or just bought off by special interests. Social media amplify and spread every fear and crazy rumor and allow the angriest among us to organize more easily. Maybe some of people’s fears are grounded in reality.

What do you think?

Here are some of the questions I hope we can wrestle with on Monday, plus some background readings. Hofstadter’s original essay is long and a bit dated, but I’ve included it. I will explain a little bit more about the paranoid political style to open our meeting.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What is the “paranoid style” in American politics? Is it a theory of politics, sociology, or psychology?
  2. Critiques of it, then and now?
  3. Is the paranoid style in vogue now? Who uses it? Who is it used on and why are they vulnerable?
  4. Causes: Why is this happening? Traumatic events? Economic stress? Changes in news media or political institutions? Growing fear of national decline? Racism/xenophobia?
  5. Fixes: What would calm public anxiety? Fixing our big social problems? Reducing immigration? Tax cuts?
  6. Future: Is any resurgence in paranoid style politics just temporary? Will it survive Trump’s presidency?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

The “paranoid style” and its critics –

 

Return of the Paranoid Style –

Future of the Paranoid Style –

NEXT WEEK: Is there a “Third Way” between capitalism and socialism?

Monday’s Mtg: Do we really have a democracy?

Jim Z.’s topic is timely, for obvious reasons. But it’s also complicated and lends itself to different approaches.

First, we could discuss how much democracy this country has had in the past, given constitutional limits on majority rule and long-standing anti-democratic characteristics of American politics and culture. It might be helpful here first to explicitly identify which features make a democracy deep and lasting. Which of these does a democracy most depend on?

  • A constitutional foundation of rights, separation of powers, checks/balances, civilian control of the military, etc.?
  • Free and fair elections with universal suffrage and protections for voting rights? What about ease of voting?
  • Public faith in democracy and/or in government and/or a high level of public engagement in civic life?
  • Pluralism (multiple and competing organized interests)?
  • Strong democratic institutions, in government and outside of it (free press, political parties, so on)?
  • Limits on powerful private interests’ political power and on corruption and cronyism?

That’s a bunch of two-hour meetings right there, some of which we’ve done (undemocratic Constitutional features, voter ignorance, money in politics). Last year we even discussed whether U.S. democracy really could unravel.

A second approach for us would be to dive right in to the (in my opinion) large and growing threats to American democracy that have emerged in the last 20 years. Obviously, Donald Trump is embodies and leads the most obvious threats, his own presidency and political movement. But, there are others.

I believe that if we want to save our democracy, we have got to be honest about one particular elephant in the room: The Republican Party and its increasingly authoritarian nature. Their gutting of the Voting Rights Act and voter suppression laws/policies. The outright theft of a Supreme Court seat. Highly aggressive state-level gerrymandering to lock in electoral advantage. The welcoming of far right-wing news media and even White nationalists into the party. Legislative hostage-taking. Union-busting to “defund the Left.” And now, a deliberate, coordinated attack on the rue of law, including the FBI and DOJ.

To be fair and balanced (!) but also accurate, undemocratic forces may be emerging within progressivism, too. Examples: Antifa-type violence, intolerance of dissent on social media, etc. We could talk about the full range of partisan/ideological threats to democracy. Other, structural threats to U.S. democracy exist and might be worth discussing, too, especially runaway economic inequality and rural economic stagnation, rising xenophobia, and even foreign interference in our elections.

Finally and on a more philosophical note, we could challenge the implied premises of Jim’s question. Is a lack of democracy really a big problem in the United States? Would more of it really help solve our big problems? Does the Constitution straightjacket us from taking bold steps toward increasing majority-rule? And, does the public really want more control over a political system they all say they have no faith in and most of them care little and know even less about?

I will do a short intro on Monday and then focus my effort on making sure we address major avenues of inquiry in our discussion and on making sure everybody gets a chance to be heard. Jim, do you have anything you want to say to start us off?

A lot of links this week, since it’s a big topic. I think they all add value and don’t repeat much or rehash old issues. My suggestion: Focus on recommended ones.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

How Democratic is the USA –

Do we have too much democracy?

Threats to US democracy –

Solutions –

NEXT WEEK: Lessons of the Vietnam War, 50 years later.

Monday’s Mtg: Is it hard to be a man these days?

This will be a fun one. Gale’s topic relates to both the political and the personal. The political, obviously includes that to man people Donald Trump personifies the most toxic form of masculinity. His Alpha male bravado and obsessive need to dominate everyone and everything. His personal history with the trophy wives and the boasting of sexual conquests (and assaults). The way Trump belittles the manhood of anybody that challenges him, unless they are women, in which case the insults are highly sexualized.

Of course, we can’t know precisely how much Trump’s macho act helped him win the presidency. He got 42% 46% of the female vote and there were other large forces at work. Still, I think it is really important to try to understand the role that politicized male grievance played in getting us to where we are now and how powerful a force it might remain going forward. Partisan news and social media make it easier than ever to organize the rage-filled, as the rise of the “men’s rights movement” described in the links below demonstrates.

Luckily – and to Gale’s relief I’m sure – this topic is much broader than politics and our Dear Leader. Maybe it really is hard to be a man these days. Consider:

  • The personal financial status of non-college educated men have all but collapsed in recent decades;
  • Family structures have evolved to be more egalitarian and less centered on men and their needs;
  • Men’s cultural status arguably has eroded, as popular media celebrates female empowerment and expects men to conform to a new and more egalitarian standard of manhood;
  • Many non-White men bear the additional burden of fearing encounters with law enforcement and immigration authorities.

Lots to chew on. On Monday I will briefly introduce our topic and then give Gale an opportunity to do the same.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Reality / Changes –

Standards –

Politics –

NEXT WEEK: North Korea – Now what?

Monday’s Mtg: Does Big Money really control U.S. politics?

That big money has too much control over our political system is one of the few political statements that almost all (85%-90%) Americans agree with. Most progressives I know think Big Money is pretty much the root of all evil in politics, or at least the largest single impediment to solving our national problems. Few conservatives I know go quite this far, but polls show a majority of conservatives and Republicans agree with the general proposition that regular people are priced out of the system.

We last discussed campaign finance reform in 2015, although we do related issues periodically, like corporations’ free speech rights in 2014. For this one, I thought we could sharpen our understanding of the (alleged) problem a bit. How did big money get to be the lifeblood of politics at almost all levels of government? What’s the evidence that Big Money really is our political system’s worst problem (as opposed to other factors, see below)? And, what might be done about big money’s dominance given the GOP’s almost total dominance of government these days and its almost complete opposition to any reforms progressives would support?

I will do some kind of informative, non-polemical opening to set the stage for discussion then open things up. Here are some readings and some more-detailed-than-usual discussion questions.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Big Money’s rise: Trends and amounts, who spends and on what and why do they do it?
  2. Regulations’ failures: Deregulation of campaign finance and lobbying rules. Citizens United et al. Rising economic inequality reinforcing political inequality. Over-regulation of economy led big biz to fight back? Recent state/local govts trying to reign money in.
  3. Harms: In elections vs in between elections. At which levels of govt? Visible vs. invisible harms. Crowding out the public interest vs. actively opposing it?
  4. Benefits: Are there any benefits to so much money in politics?
  5. Dogs that don’t bark: What things don’t happen due to big money’s influence that would or should happen?
  6. Other culprits: Ideological and partisan polarization, voter apathy/ignorance, changing news media/social media effects, candidate quality, etc. à Is big money really more important than all of these factors?
  7. Solutions: What fixes might be constitutional, possible given total GOP opposition at all levels, and effective?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING – (many, some long – pick and choose)

NEXT WEEK: What is “fair trade?” Do we need it?

Monday’s Mtg: Are corporate monopolies damaging our economy?

What’s gone wrong with the U.S. economy? Outside of the horror of our national politics, this may be the central public issue of our time. This is true even though we have had almost eight straight years of economic growth, 4% unemployment, a 20,000 Dow, and record corporate profits.

Something just seems…broken. Wage growth is anemic and average real wages haven’t risen for 40 years. Economic inequality is at 1920s levels. Droves of Americans have dropped out of the labor force. Rural areas are especially stagnant. The gig economy and intelligent robot workers are coming. Americans are angry and anxiety-ridden.

We have talked about these structural problems of modern capitalism for many years in Civilized Conversation. Left and right tend to finger different culprits. But, as I have said before, experts focus their inquiries on these four broad causes:

  1. Technology – Technological advances have raised demand for highly-educated knowledge-based workers but not for anybody else.
  2. Globalization – Free trade and outsourcing expose more Americans to low-wage foreign industries.
  3. Immigration – Migrants depress wages, especially in labor-intensive sectors; and
  4. Government – Tax policy, regulation and/or deregulation, and lack of public investment have weakened the economy and benefitted only a sliver of Americans.

Monday’s meeting concerns a 5th possible perpetrator, one that is getting a lot of attention lately, even in the popular press: Corporate concentration and monopoly. There might even be some room for agreement among liberals and conservatives on the issue (although all national policy will remain frozen for the foreseeable Trumpian future).

But, the harm caused by monopoly power and how to combat it are tough issues. No one denies what we all see around us: Industry after industry has grown to be dominated by a handful of (3-5 or even fewer) gigantic companies. It’s true for health insurance, telecommunications, energy, mining, banking, social media platforms, even retail. Only a few industries are monopolies, dominated by a single company selling to the public. But, many are oligopolies (several firms dominate sales) or monopsonies (they dominate as buyers, of labor and supplies).

Yet, it is not clear exactly how much harm monopolistic concentration is doing to our economy. Experts even disagree on who is being harmed and how entrenched today’s monopolists are. I will go into more detail on Monday, but basically monopolies might be:

  • Extracting what economists call “rents” from the rest of us; i.e., profits in excess of what could be earned in a competitive market;
  • Raising consumer prices and limiting consumer choice;
  • Extracting wealth from their supply chains or employees via lower wages;
  • Depressing innovation and R&D;
  • Contributing to growing economic inequality; and
  • Buying off political power that could be used to stop them.

Here are some readings that purport to explain what’s going on. I’ve tried to note which ones are the easiest and hardest reads. Note the ones that argue growing monopoly power is NOT a big problem.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Re-thinking the U.S.-Saudi alliance.