Posted in Rants on June 25th, 2017 by Ed

A curious pair of totally unconnected articles made the rounds last week.

Bruce Bartlett, a Republican and former Reagan White House hand, wrote a well-reasoned piece for Politico with the says-it-all title, "Trump is What Happens when a Political Party Abandons Ideas." The argument is one that most of us already knew (although there is something refreshing about hearing it stated explicitly) – that in the pursuit of power, the GOP has engaged in so much hypocrisy that it no longer really stands for anything. If everything is OK as long as a Republican does it – and oh my god is it ever OK to the post-Reagan GOP – then there really is nothing that defines the party except the quest to remain in power. Bartlett's argument is not flawless. For example, most people would recognize at least some core policies associated with the GOP; cutting taxes (albeit with no real strategy or goal other than to cut them and keep cutting them) and making the government not work are two things all GOPers seem to embrace. In the larger sense, though, he is right. There are no white papers supporting their policy goals. Hell, in eight years they didn't even bother to assign some junior staffer to grab two interns and bang out some kind of "alternative" to the ACA.

A few days before Bartlett went to press, the usually unbearable Matthew Yglesias noted in response to the Georgia special election, "Jon Ossoff’s Georgia special election loss shows Democrats could use a substantive agenda." The original title of this piece was much spicier, and toning it down is the Vox-iest thing Vox ever Voxed. But in the resplendently logical argument, the author makes the important point that the Democratic Party has nailed "Trump is bad" and "Republicans are bad people, and we are the alternative to Republicans," but have essentially no coherent policy agenda that a normal voter could name. I argued last week that all special election analysis is over-analysis and that these attempts to divine meaning from a House race here or there are ridiculous. That remains true. However, Yglesias is correct that the Democrats have run these races in heavily red districts like some sort of weird referendum on Democrats being Different from Republicans without making it clear exactly how other than being hipper, more charismatic, and Not Republicans.

Some of you can see where I'm going with this.

If both of these authors are correct, then we have two political parties that aren't really about anything. They're competing fiercely and inarguably offering Americans some kind of choice – only someone truly out on a limb would argue that there is no difference at all between having Trump or Hillary in the White House – but they're more like two sports teams than opposing political parties at this point. How can you have two groups locked in fierce competition when neither one of them really stands for or is about anything coherent? Easy: you frame things as the politics of identity. Republicans present themselves as Real America – the red-blooded, gun- and Bible-waving tough guys who like big bombs and shitty gas mileage and women and minorities who Know their Place. Democrats present themselves as the educated elite that lives in big cities and looks down its nose at people who shop at Wal-Mart, think the Earth is 6000 years old, and drive big stupid trucks.

Granted, defining the political process around a cultural or identity based divide is viable. It has been and is done around the world. Sure, it usually results in people trying to purge society of the Other, but besides that I can't think of any drawbacks.

The obvious imperative is to get back to having a political system based on opposing views about the appropriate policy direction of the government. But given that most of the country isn't even interested in learning if the Kremlin altered our election results, let's not hold our breath.


Posted in Rants on June 21st, 2017 by Ed

Every sport has an off-season and dead periods in which a fan will lower his or her standards considerably to be entertained. College football, for instance, has a dead month between the end of the season (around Thanksgiving) and its Bowl games (centered around Jan. 1). Some of the more piddling Bowl games try to take advantage of this by scheduling themselves on dates with no other sporting competition. Say you run the Hot Dogs Bowl, which matches up teams like Southwestern Tech vs. Wyoming A&M – not exactly clash of the titans. You can play on the same day as most of the Bowls and nobody will watch. Why would they, when the Sugar Bowl and Rose Bowl are on? Or you can schedule your game on something like Dec. 17 and be the only game on TV for a span of several days.

As a fan of the sport, if you are sitting at home with nothing else to do or out at the bar with your friends and the game is on the big screen, you are likely to watch. But there is always a moment in which you look at the fourth-rate action and ask yourself, "What in the hell am I watching this garbage for?" And you answer yourself immediately: Because there is nothing else on. This is it. And since you're a fan, it scratches your itch a little even if it's basically crap.

(The Beef O'Brady's Bowl is a real thing, incidentally.)

This is a Special Election in a nutshell. Everyone who is interested in politics focuses on it, and the forces of money and enthusiasm within the system are brought to bear upon it for the simple reason that there is nothing else for them to do at the moment. The 2018 Elections won't begin in earnest until next spring. Everyone is sick to death of hearing and talking about 2016. The day-to-day of DC politics is grinding along, but people (read: clickers, viewers, and readers) find elections more interesting than procedure. So if there is an election – any election, anywhere – CNN and the like start beating the drum hard.

We just got a week of saturation coverage of a goddamn special House race in Montana. Montana. And not one but two non-consecutive weeks of wall-to-wall coverage on an R+20 suburban district in Georgia. Like any election, the media are desperate to have these isolated races Mean Something. In reality they do not. Yes, the GOP probably should take it as a not-stellar sign that Democrats were able to get anywhere close to either of these seats. But what these races "mean" in the larger sense is nothing. They mean that when held singly, a House race gets thousands of times the attention it would get if held simultaneously with the other 434.

In ordinary circumstances, GA-06 would not even be a blip on the radar. You would not have it on any list of "races to watch" and you certainly would not be able to name either candidate or put any stock in the outcome. That's worth bearing in mind when the tidal wave of Hot Takes washes over us this week.


Posted in Rants on June 19th, 2017 by Ed

Of all the things I've figured out about life – by no means an extensive list – the lesson that took the longest to sink in is that wealthy people or people in the social "elite" however you choose define it do not have advantages for the reasons the rest of us usually think. People assume that Old Money or social status allow one to play The Game with any number of advantages like better preparation, more knowledge, or better connections. This is true for people playing The Game, to be sure. But the elites are not competing like the rest of us, with varying degrees of advantage over one another. They are playing an entirely separate game. They live, for all intents and purposes, in a different world.

It's certainly not an important news item given all that is going on in the world, but earlier this year Marc Mezvinsky's hedge fund shut down earlier this year. If that name seems familiar, it's Chelsea Clinton's husband. Bill and Hillary's son in law. But beyond the status he gained in marriage, his own mother was a Member of Congress (she of the infamous "Bye Bye Marjorie" vote to pass Bill's budget in 1994) and his father was a millionaire financier in addition to, obviously, also being a Congressman. Incidentally, he spent some time in the pokey for his financial dealings, but hey, nobody's perfect. So, to say Marc has and has had it all would be an understatement.

He garnered some attention during the Greek debt crisis by using about $25 million to buy Greek sovereign debt for pennies on the dollar despite the fact that the government was clearly indicating that it would default. Now, as far as investment ideas go this is not strictly an awful idea; he made a gamble that someone – the IMF, Germany, the EU, China, private banks – would bail Greece out at the last second. Had that happened, the notes he bought at something like $0.04 on the dollar would have paid off with a gain of thousands of percent. Seriously, it's not a strictly terrible idea. It was not totally implausible that someone would bail Greece out.

The problem was that this isn't really "hedging" anything in the sense of what a hedge fund is actually supposed to do. This is more like betting on a three legged horse with 10,000:1 odds to win the Kentucky Derby. This was buying junk bonds and losing, essentially. The other problem is that Greece did in fact default and he was totally exposed. He lost $25 million overnight.

It is arguable that in the world of banking and finance, $25 million is like 25 cents to the rest of us. But it represented a good portion of his fund's assets, and with their closure in February it is obvious that this fit into a pattern of big losses. The financial aspect of this story is uninteresting unless you happen to be very excited by financial wheeling and dealing. What strikes me about this single example is that this guy pissed away $25,000,000 and nothing happened to him. Nothing. He's not in legal trouble. The fund's investors aren't wielding torches and howling for his blood. He hasn't been ostracized by Wall Street. In his reality, this is maybe, at worst, cause for some good-natured ribbing from the fraternity of his fellow untouchables. He might get some grief after a couple drinks at exclusive charity events. Hey Marc, wanna buy some Greek magic beans? Hi-larious.

Think about that. He threw $25 million down the drain and nothing happened to him in a world in which a woman who is 10 minutes late for her minimum wage retail shift because the school bus didn't show up to get her kid not only gets fired but is confidently told that she deserves nothing better. This is a society where teachers get fired if parents complain about them, where people who do their jobs well and work hard are laid off or fired anyway because of *shrug* "Progress" But if you're one of the chosen, you cannot fail unless failing up counts. Flushed $100 million of venture capital down the drain at your startup? LOL bro, it's cool, here's more money to play with. Your last company fired you after you took over as CEO and ran them into the ground? Don't worry, another CEO gig awaits. There is no end to the number of mulligans these people give and receive within their exclusive circle of Old Money and Ivy Leaguers deemed worthy of admittance. The poor (or merely Not Super Wealthy) need discipline and punishment – one mistake and it's all over. The wealthy, though, need coddling and endless do-overs; how else will we encourage them to Create and Innovate, amirite?

The only profession in which a person can be demonstrably terrible yet continue to get rewarded over and over again is being a left-handed starting pitcher. And that's just a supply problem. There is no shortage of cocky Stanford-minted scions of the Old Money willing to play with, manipulate, and gamble other people's money, yet the same guarantees of lifetime job security and lavish compensation apply.

That's the different between the oligarchs and everyone else. It would be nice to live in a world with a gentlemen's agreement that no one can be permitted to truly fail, but I guess most of us would settle for one in which any job was available and maybe a few of them even had paid vacation days.


Posted in Rants on June 7th, 2017 by Ed

It is fashionable and born of good intentions to say that Community as a concept is important, positive, and is worth preserving. All of those things can be true while also recognizing that at some point the patient is deceased and no amount of medical intervention will bring it back to life.

Cairo, IL just received attention in the form of an NPR story about its latest in a drawn-out series of death throes. For those who have not had the pleasure, Cairo (KAY-row) is the worst and saddest place you can find in the United States. I have been to all 50 states. I have driven through every inch of the Midwest, which practically abounds with Sad Places. Cairo is the worst. It is a cross between a theme park Ghost Town and a FEMA camp for evacuees from a natural disaster. There is nothing in Cairo. Nothing.

Cairo was important and viable a long time ago due to its geographic position at the confluence of two major rivers. Since this is not the 19th Century anymore and riverboats are not the driving force behind the economy of the region, there no longer is any reason for Cairo to exist. It is conveniently positioned for river traffic but otherwise totally desolate. It is a four-plus hour drive to any city of consequence (St. Louis, Louisville) and even a solid hour removed from remote backwaters like Paducah, KY. When a description of your location uses both "Paducah" and "one hour from," you are admitting defeat.

Even the schools in Cairo are closing, and not for the trendy budget-slashing reasons. They are closing because there are no students. Everybody able to leave this place has left. They have left because there is no reason to stay. Emotionally, I find the willingness of the remaining residents to try to Save Cairo endearing. Intellectually I know that A) it will not work and B) there is no defensible reason to try.

When the state and Federal governments reckon the amount of money they pour into a place like Cairo, the following offer would be in the best interests of everyone involved: give every man, woman, and child in Cairo who does not own a home a voucher for a free moving van, a check for $10,000, and advice on places they could move that are not totally devoid of opportunities and amenities. Give every home or property owner in the city a check for their property and send them on their way similarly. Just pull the plug. The place is finished. Go.

If that seems ludicrously expensive, cutting checks would cost little compared to the long term costs of keeping places like this on life support for no reason anyone can articulate. And there is plenty of precedent for it. The EPA and Congress have evacuated communities before due to determinations that remediation would be so prohibitively expensive that the only cost-effective option is to pay people for their property and move them elsewhere. Gilman, CO. Picher, OK. Centralia, PA (of the infamous smoldering underground mine fires). Times Beach, MO (which is so soaked in dioxin that even the rodents died). These are not examples from 1850 during the Gold Rush. These are recent. This can be done. It is done, when deemed necessary.

It is not absolutely necessary to wait for enough toxic material or enough flaming coal to accumulate before the government decides that a place is no longer habitable. A broader view would include things like economic prospects and quality of life in determining habitability. The problem places like Cairo cannot solve is that the provision of public goods is expensive and providing them in the middle of nowhere at great cost for no obvious reason is a proposition that, rather than leading to eventual improvement, signals the beginning of a death spiral from which small towns rarely if ever recover.

I want to be clear that my point is not "Let Cairo fail" but that Cairo has already failed. It's dead. This is not Detroit, a place with all the amenities of urban life that is struggling to realign its public policy with its reduced population. This is a tiny city that has literally nothing going for it, where the few people who remain are either directly or indirectly (through government employment, just about the only decent employment remaining) subsidized. If subsidizing the population had the tiniest hope of improving the situation there I would be all for it. But it doesn't take an expert in economics or urban planning to take a look at the place in person and realize that it has flatlined.

Should the government go on a town-killing spree to save money? Absolutely not. But with a handful of the worst cases, it would make sense to ask what rationale there is for trying to save places that are too far gone to ever recover when the money could be better used to provide the same citizens with meaningful improvements and better quality of life elsewhere. There is a point at which cutting bait and declaring that there is nothing left to do is in fact the right thing to do.


Posted in Rants on June 5th, 2017 by Ed

Generation gaps are real. Even among terrorists.

Probably one in a million Americans would recognize the phrase "Dawson's Field Hijacking." It happened some time ago (1970) and involved no loss of life aside from one of the perpetrators. Four airliners were hijacked simultaneously and directed to a remote field in the Jordanian desert on September 6, 1970. A fifth plane eventually joined them. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine organized the massively complex undertaking as what amounted to a publicity stunt. The use of that phrase is not intended to demean what the people involved went through; no doubt it was harrowing. The Jewish passengers in particular were held as hostages for nearly 10 days before their release for Palestinian activists imprisoned in various countries was negotiated. But ultimately that is what pre-9/11 airline hijackings were – they were leverage in a process of negotiation. And

The plot that eventually became the 9/11 attack evolved from something called "Operation Bojinka" in which Khalid Sheikh Mohammed planned a dizzying ten simultaneous airline hijackings culminating with, in the words of the 9/11 report (emphasis mine):

Nine (planes) would crash into targets on both coasts — they included those eventually hit on September 11 plus CIA and FBI headquarters, nuclear power plants, and the tallest buildings in California and the state of Washington. KSM himself was to land the tenth plane at a U.S.airport and, after killing all adult male passengers on board and alerting the media, deliver a speech excoriating U.S. support for Israel, the Philippines, and repressive governments in the Arab world. Beyond KSM’s rationalizations about targeting the U.S. economy, this vision gives a better glimpse of his true ambitions. This is theater, a spectacle of destruction with KSM as the self-cast star — the superterrorist

Terrorism up to an including 9/11 focused on this sort of Grand Gesture attack. The goal was not necessarily to kill a lot of people, although that certainly was a part of it. Then 9/11 combined the intricate planning, bold execution, and grand spectacle of terrorism as it was understood at the time with large scale murder. The problem, from a terrorist's perspective, is that the 9/11 attack was simply too bold; frankly it is a minor miracle that they pulled it off, and it required not only years of planning but also an enormous amount of good fortune (again, as they saw it) to have it work out.

That was the older generation. Today's "ISIS-inspired" terrorist was not raised on hijackings and PLO press conferences and plans that unfold over the course of years. This is a generation of nihilists who don't care about making things look pretty or striking fear into the heart of the West with their strategic acumen or ability to coordinate complex plans. The only goal here is to make everybody afraid and kill as many people as possible. Part of me likes to think, if there is any shared humanity between people like us and murderous terrorists, that the older generation frowns disapprovingly at The Kids These Days for their brutality, their lack of any interest in political aims, the absence of any pretense of artfulness, and the apocalyptic pointlessness of it all.

That is why what is happening now is so effective and essentially unstoppable. Complex plots create any number of opportunities for security services and counterterrorists to intervene. The kind of attacks we're getting accustomed to over the last two or three years eliminate that possibility by requiring no planning at all. Grab a gun, head for a crowd. Get in a van, head for a crowd. Build a crude bomb (I've not done so, admittedly, but I believe that anyone with time and internet access could figure out how to make something that will blow up) and head for a crowd.

What these people want is not the release of prisoners or the negotiation of political solutions to problems of international relations. The theology of ISIS is apocalyptic. These are end-timers attempting to provoke a final showdown with the non-believers of the world (which, as they define it, includes most Muslims as well). At this rate I have little doubt that they will get it, eventually. Their strategy of provoking increasingly harsh and anti-Islamic reactions from Western governments is moving more quickly than anyone thought possible ten years ago, and every "crackdown" is a recruiting tool ISIS types use to argue that their predictions of anti-Islamic evils perpetrated by democratic governments is coming true. At the rate of an attack per month or even week, it is only a matter of time until the United States, Russia, or the many nations affected in Europe lurch to the far right spectrum of proposed "solutions" to the current problem.

Nobody is making demands. Nobody wants to negotiate. This comparatively small group of people wants to attack Western democracies and drive them mad with fear until they abandon every principle by which they define themselves to strike back. In time they will get what they want. The chapters being written for future history books in the next decade or two are not going to be pleasant reads.


Posted in Rants on May 30th, 2017 by Ed

The only way I can rationalize Kenneth Rose's Myth and the Greatest Generation (2007) being anything less than a best-seller and a national conversation starter is lack of promotion by the publisher and the absence of a Big Name Author with a well developed Personal Brand on the title page. Written as a detailed and informative rebuttal to the "Greatest Generation" series from Tom Brokaw and its numerous imitators, it proceeds from the simple premise that the generation born shortly before the Great Depression and which came of age during World War II was not notably different from other generations except for how we choose to remember them (and they choose to remember themselves).

The myths of a virtuous, civic-minded generation defined by sacrifice and the greater good is partly accurate, of course, as Americans in large numbers did indeed make great sacrifices for their country and to fight fascism during the 1940s. However, our cultural narrative of WWII chooses to overlook all the less glamorous aspects of life during that time that reveal the WWII generation to be no different than others. There were Americans who fought bravely, and others who dodged the draft enthusiastically. Some rationed, and others fed a billion-dollar black market in rationed goods. Some worked until they dropped to support war production at home, while others malingered and went idle. Some wives endured the emotional battle of maintaining a marriage during wartime, and others ran off with someone else and sent "Dear John" letters to the front. Some soldiers fought in a way that reflected well on their country and values, while others shot surrendering prisoners. Women and African-Americans filled the void in the economy left by sixteen million (mostly white, mostly men) people enlisted or drafted; some workplaces used this as a springboard toward a new conception of the labor force, while others met them with half-wages, discrimination, and other forms of ill treatment at every turn. Many American businesses gamely redirected themselves toward war production, while others rapaciously profiteered off of the war effort in ways that would make the Mafia blush with shame.

In other words, they weren't good, nor were they bad. They were just normal. We make the decision, conscious or otherwise, to remember them in a certain way. We associate "Draft Dodging" with Vietnam but ignore the millions of men who went to another country or used wealth and connections to secure employment deemed essential to the war effort to avoid having to fight. We ignore that, for example, when the Korean War draft began, my grandfather and millions of other WWII veterans quickly arranged to conceive children to make themselves exempt from being re-enlisted. Does that make them bad people? No. It makes them normal. If World War II conditions were re-created today we would see the same mix of reactions. Some people would make sacrifices and others would take advantage of opportunities available to them.

Part of the problem with our false memory is a conscious effort to market to a demographic with spending money over the past two decades. Starting in the late 1980s a tsunami of WWII history-propaganda overtook Hollywood and (especially) the publishing industry. Go to a large chain bookstore (if you can still find one) and go to the History section – half of the space is devoted to World War II and its era. Every conceivable aspect of it has been covered to death, usually in uncritical terms by authors eager to tell the target audience of aged white men what they want to hear. There is nothing new about this. There will always be attempts to cash in on selective nostalgia.

The other problem, and the one we more often ignore, is that memory is a poor guide on any subject, especially across decades. The fundamental fallacy of yearning for things to go back to The Way They Used to Be is that the way we remember Things Being is guaranteed to be selective and distorted. Have you ever visited a house you used to live in, a school you used to attend, a neighborhood from your past, your old favorite bar, and so on? Invariably the reaction we have is one of surprise when we discover that over time we have distorted little things about it. Sure, the house is where we remember it being, but was it really this small? Were those trees there in 1980, or are they new? Really? I could have sworn they were farther away.

Social conditions are not exempt from this phenomenon. Memory is incomplete even under the best circumstances. The way modern American politics bathes itself in sloppy rhetoric about the golden days we have left behind is the worst kind of indulgence in fantasy. Not only are we intentionally omitting some of the parts we choose not to remember, but even to the extent that we think we are remembering it faithfully we are fooling ourselves. A hypothetical journey in a time machine would reveal that our sunny memories of the 1950s or whatever time period we consider to be immediately Before the Fall have been edited substantially over time. We remember things being better than they were because we want to and because we can't remember things any other way.


Posted in Rants on May 24th, 2017 by Ed

There's nothing meaningful about anniversaries per se; they are but a convenient excuse to raise and recall historical events that are interesting, relevant, or important. Sunday was the 90th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic from Roosevelt Field to Le Bourget in Paris. Truly, honestly, it stands as one of the most incredible (if pointless in the practical sense) feats a person has ever accomplished. A modern equivalent might be someone named Jane Doe showing up at a spaceport with a capsule she made in her yard and flying to Mars by herself while Elon Musk and NASA look on and predict her imminent death…followed two years from now by footage of her standing on Mars waving.

I could talk endlessly about the technical aspects of the accomplishment, so I will stop myself in advance. Suffice it to say that papers called him "Lucky Lindy" not simply because it sounded cool but because the quest to fly the Atlantic from New York to Paris produced nothing but an impressively long list of corpses until Lindbergh did it, and continued to kill well funded, highly experienced crews in technologically sophisticated aircraft for years after. To point out just two examples, pioneering French aviators Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli flew a technological marvel called L'Osseau Blanc to their deaths in an Atlantic crossing attempt shortly before Lindbergh's try. And Richard Byrd's team, which included both a dedicated navigator and a radio operator, survived its crossing flight but missed its intended arrival point in Ireland by nearly 800 miles. They crash-landed in France, essentially hitting Europe at all only because it is too big to miss if one flies (generally) eastward. Lindbergh, meanwhile, flew what was essentially a powered box kite alone, navigated with a pad of paper on his knees and zero forward visibility (the windshield was blocked with a gas tank), and landed exactly where he said he would, to the foot.

More to the point, Lindbergh's act achieved him a kind of fame that has no modern equivalent. The news cycle is so short today that the kind of all-encompassing, smothering, planetary fame that met Lindbergh will probably never be repeated. He became famous to the point that living anything resembling life became impossible for him and more or less destroyed him. It led directly, through constant reports about details of his home life, to the kidnapping and murder of his son in what was, until the OJ Simpson Trial (more on that in a moment), the Crime of the Century.

So, parts of us feel sympathetic to the idea that Lindbergh might be driven by the harassing pressures of fame and adulation to become…a little odd. Maybe develop something of an antipathy toward his fellow man. He could have been forgiven a curmudgeonly, even misanthropic, leaning or two. But that's not what happened. What happened was not forgivable. In a high school auditorium in Iowa in 1941, Charles Lindbergh doused himself in gasoline and lit a metaphorical match. His speech on non-intervention, coming on the heels of years of uncomfortable flirtations with Nazism, "America First" boosterism, and the very darkest corners of the generally already quite dark Eugenics movement, ended Charles Lindbergh with an immediacy and finality that was nothing short of breathtaking. It is impossible to think of another example of a person who went from universally admired public figure to persona non grata as quickly and totally as Charles Lindbergh. OJ Simpson is a rough equivalent, although his popularity never reached the heights of Lindbergh's. Bill Cosby comes to mind as well, although he was already well past his peak of esteem by the time his public defenestration came. Lindbergh went from proposals to name new states after him to He Whose Name is Not Spoken literally overnight.

It is more than a bit striking, then, to read the text of Lindbergh's career-ending speech now, in light of the knowledge of the revulsion with which it was greeted and how thoroughly it destroyed the public reputation of a man who until that moment could virtually do no wrong. Does it not seem almost…tame, by today's standards in American politics? Far from being career suicide, giving that speech today would merit a book deal, a syndicated talk show, and a career in Republican electoral politics. Compare this to the writings of people who currently occupy positions of authority in the damn White House and Lindbergh practically comes off as some sort of reasoned moderate. My point is not that Charles Lindbergh's anti-Semitic, eugenics-guided fascist sympathy adds up to an idea that is defensible or has merit; the point is that none of this would hurt him or his reputation much today. The actual President would shower him with praise, which contrasts neatly with FDR's take ("If I should die tomorrow, I want you to know this, I am absolutely convinced Lindbergh is a Nazi.")

There was a time when being at least borderline into Nazism was a liability in America. Apparently that time has passed. Of course, until WWII began Lindbergh's views were not exactly unique among Americans. However, rather than continuing to reject them based on the lessons learned during that almost unimaginably destructive conflict, we are now content to move backward and claim that perhaps we had things right all long back in the days when Madison Grant was respectable reading. I don't need to explain in much detail what that kind of thinking led to, I hope.


Posted in Rants on May 22nd, 2017 by Ed

When I have the opportunity to teach a senior seminar – intended to be a capstone to the major, a "big picture" course – I assign a reading list that frames what I believe will be the defining Big Questions of the next half-century or more. One: How will the state respond to the possibility than in the future, improvements in productivity and technology will result in an economy unable to produce enough jobs to sustain our current market-oriented system? In other words, how (if at all) will governments adapt when there is no longer a need for labor as we currently understand it. This is essentially the Player Piano scenario. To undergraduates about to head out into the world in search of employment this question resonates.

The second: How much are individuals willing to change their way of life and the current understanding of individual rights to combat non-state actors? In other words, terrorism is essentially impossible to stop by any conventional means. One man can rent a truck and drive it into a crowd and the Good Guys combating terrorism will never have had the slightest chance to intervene. One person can walk into a crowded place with a gun, no prior planning or terror-networking involved, and fire away. The only way to prevent this type of terrorism is by giving up our concept of privacy on a scale that is currently unimaginable. Theoretically, if The Government read every person's online activity and monitored every phone conversation on Earth in real time it might be possible to intervene against Lone Wolf or decentralized terrorist network attacks. You could in theory find every person who visits an ISIS propaganda website and send the police crashing through their door moments later. You could even have smartphone technology that records and transcribes every conversation in range. You could even, if future technology advances at the rate we have seen in the last 50 years, have the ability to record and transcribe our thoughts. Don't laugh – research on how to replace user interfaces (mice, keyboards, tapping the screen) with technology that reads our thoughts is in progress. Are we there yet? No. Might we get there? Sure.

Whenever I see something like the apparent terror attack in Manchester on Monday evening I become more convinced that this second question is going to make or (probably) break western democracies in the coming decades. With enough of these attacks over a long enough timeframe individuals will gradually grow fearful of everything – flying, public transit, sport events, concerts, malls, any public gathering of more than a handful of people, tourist destinations…you name it. People will find that no amount of resources allocated by the state can stop terrorism of this type because it requires only motivation and the amount of planning a dullard could complete in 20 minutes. The goal of people like Osama bin Laden was and is to bring about the collapse of Western societies by exploiting their weakest points. It is a long game, aimed at making us slowly lose our collective sanity and resort to increasingly undemocratic rule and concentration of power and wealth in the state until it collapses from within. It's working so far. Give the US and France and the UK twenty more years of random, periodic carnage and it is likely to produce some results that seem far-fetched now.

We will have to choose as societies whether we will live with a persistent low level of danger (You're still incredibly unlikely to die from terrorism compared to just about anything else, but the fear it causes is disproportionate) from insidious elements that wish to do us harm or whether we will subvert a handful of the core, defining principles of 20th Century Western democracy in exchange for greater security, real or perceived.

We know which the Boomers choose, but in twenty years none of them will be left. Today's young adults ultimately will be the ones who have to pull the trigger. It will be a historic decision; once the path toward a surveillance state and "clash of civilizations" policies toward Muslims is chosen, the consequences for our nations and the world will reverberate for the next century.


Posted in Rants on May 16th, 2017 by Ed

Of all the styles of pundit writing the most loathsome is the "You can't blame me for failing to foresee this, as nobody could have foreseen it!" self-absolution. And when this three-ring shitshow in the White House meets its tragi-comic end, whether on schedule in January 2021 or earlier, it will take a great deal of fortitude to plow through the inevitable hand-wringing pieces from Republicans who fancy themselves Serious People without projectile vomiting our spleens onto the ashes of whatever is left of us by then.

Circa 2005 when it became so obvious that the Iraq War was a poorly thought-out, poorly executed misadventure in imbecilic optimism as a one-to-one replacement for strategy and legitimate cause, Very Serious People on the right began lining up to purge themselves all over our eyes. What was once the very best idea suddenly became the worst foreign policy disaster in American history, but lest the gentle reader entertain thoughts of questioning the judgment of people like George Will it must be pointed out that no one – no one at all – could have foreseen in 2003 that the invasion could possibly turn out in any way other than Super Great. No one could have known, for example, that the White House cherry-picked intel, placed huge amounts of political pressure on agencies to reach predetermined conclusions, and generally had no goddamn idea whatsoever to do once it used the military to smash Saddam Hussein's regime into dust other than "They'll hail us as their liberators and everything will be great." Never mind that all of this was widely recognized and shouted until hoarse for 18 months leading up to the war. Nobody could have known.

And now we will have to read the same masturbatory thinkpieces all over again. Because clearly nobody could have predicted that taking a person with obvious personality disorders who has never had a job before and is proud of the fact that he has no idea what he is doing and making that person president would turn out poorly.

It would not surprise me if a lot of the Republicans and conservative media figures have their "the day after Trump is gone" pieces in the can already. Even Fox News has to be planning ahead despite their comical efforts to keep this unfolding disaster away from the dead octogenarian eyes of their remaining viewers; a slew of "What went wrong and why are we not at fault for failing to mention any of this before it actually went wrong?" pieces exist in the ethers, awaiting only the push of a button to be unleashed and accepted unquestioningly. Revisionist history as absolution is the only thing the right does as effectively as phony moral outrage and IOKIYAR-ism.

Spare us. That's all I ask. Living with the consequences is punishment enough. Don't double down by telling us that an honest person had no idea how this was going to turn out.


Posted in Rants on May 15th, 2017 by Ed

The curious lack of enthusiasm for getting to the bottom of the ties between the current administration and Russia is about more than partisan politics and Americans' general lack of interest in anything substantive. The whole story makes people uneasy because it speaks to a fundamental change in the world that has unsettling consequences for all of us. Privacy is essentially dead, and we don't want to learn just how dead it is. The implications are too frightening.

We get stories about email hacks, computer viruses, information theft, and other forms of electronic snooping to understand – whether we realize it or not – that the concept of privacy on the internet does not truly exist. Anyone willing to devote the time, effort, and resources to getting at our personal information can do so. The only reason it doesn't happen to you and I is that you and I are not important. If we were, hell or high water couldn't stop an interested party from reading your emails, flipping through your text messages, and so on.

Given the extent to which we have transitioned huge parts of our lives onto the internet, this is not a reality we are eager to confront. Not many of us have an internet footprint that would involve issues of national security, but I think it makes people profoundly uncomfortable to see these stories on the news and realize that under the right circumstances, everything we have ever said or done online could suddenly become available for the world to read. If you don't believe that, pause for a moment and imagine that everyone you know could read everything you've ever said (some of it about them, no doubt) in a text, email, IM, and so on. The best case scenario would be some serious embarrassment. The worst is documentation of activities that could land you in legal trouble, given that those text messages to your weed dealer probably aren't nearly as inscrutable as you suppose them to be.

The technology and talent for invading someone's privacy online will only get better in the future. The fact that your credit card number, identity, bank account, and email haven't been hacked is not an indication that online security measures are protecting you, but that you're not important enough for the people who have these skills to use them against you. As the ability to pry improves, electronic blackmail is likely to become the unstoppable billion dollar illegal activity of the future. "Pay up or else everything goes on Wikileaks" is a demand that many people in the professional world are likely to have a hard time ignoring. If you're in a field in which it matters in the least how other people see you (i.e., nearly every profession) you aren't going to be pleased by the thought of the world finding out that you forward off-color jokes, have a deep and lasting fondness for illegal drugs, consume a truly heroic amount of porn, write long harangues against your immediate superiors at work, like taking pictures of yourself in various states of undress, have a thriving account on Furry Fetish Personals, or any of the hundreds of other things people do in their private lives under the assumption that the phrase "private lives" is meaningful. We aren't quite ready to admit to ourselves that if the wrong people take an interest in you, the idea of privacy effectively ceases to exist.

On an intellectual level the majority of Americans believe it's important to know fully what sort of connections elected officials might have to a foreign government or any other potentially questionable interests. When we pause to consider how that information has become available to the public and to law enforcement, though, we are divided into two groups: those of us made uncomfortable by the extent to which electronic spies can pry into our lives and those of us who don't understand the issue well enough to realize the implications.