Saturday, November 12, 2016

Trump: First President To...

Election-night pundits talked a lot about how this presidential election was unique, and it certainly was surprising in many ways.  But Trump, the candidate, was as different from previous presidential candidates as the election itself was from previous elections; not just in his demeanour, but in a host of measurable ways.  (All of the following assume he actually takes office in 2 1/2 months, which seems likely but I feel like I need to cover myself in case some unlikely event prevents him from doing so.)

Trump will not be the oldest president to take the inaugural oath, but he will be the oldest to take it for the first time (he is 70, Reagan was 69).  Reagan also beat Trump to become the first divorcĂ© to be president, but Trump has two divorces to Reagan's one.  He is the first billionaire to be elected.  Ironically, however, Hillary Clinton raised twice as much money as Trump did.  This makes him the first person to win an election in spite of raising less than his opponent since...Bill Clinton did it in 1996.  (I was not aware of this history, but the fact that Trump had raised so little money made me think he had little chance, I guess in part because I assumed that meant little enthusiasm for his candidacy.)

Trump scored basically no major newspaper endorsements, which is truly remarkable in some respects.  A list at wikipedia shows that, among the few papers to endorse him, the best known was the National Enquirer.  He was also endorsed by papers in Jacksonville, Las Vegas, and Hillsboro (OH).  This is probably the first time a president has been elected without being endorsed by a major newspaper, although if you define a newspaper by its circulation, the Enquirer is probably bigger than almost any of the regular dailies.

I think the biggest thing that makes Trump different from his predecessors, certainly one that stands out, is that he has no previous political or military experience.  Every previous president has had at least one of the two, often both.  Relatively few military leaders have been elected without previous political office, among them Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower.  Prior to Trump, the president with the least experience was almost certainly Barack Obama, who had been a U.S. Senator for only 4 years, although he had been in the Illinois legislature for 7 years prior to that.  I have wondered before (and I thought I wrote about it, although I can't find it right now) how Trump's candidacy would affect future elections.  If he lost, of course, odds are that we would not see another outsider like him for many years.  I suspect that the machinery of the Republican Party has been moving since the primary season started to prevent the possibility of its recurrence, and I doubt they will want to change just because he won.

But since he has won...what then?  Are we going to enter into an era of outsider presidents?  Will well-known actors, singers, and athletes compete for the highest office, and will major parties welcome them because they have huge name recognition, loyal fans, and the virtue of not being part of the Washington establishment?  I have heard sportswriters joke about how such-and-such an athlete could win the governorship of his home state.  This was not really such a stretch, as Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger showed, and Al Franken won a Senate seat with no political background outside of political humour.  But that seems like a small thing to aim for now.  Could Stephon Marbury or Cam Newton run for president now that Donald Trump has paved the way?

Friday, November 11, 2016

Trump's First Year

Everyone wants to know what a president Trump would actually do.  I think the only surprise would be if Trump governed mundanely for four years, not surprising the whole country -- supporters and opponents -- several times.  However, there are some issues that have more urgency than others, so they will be the ones we are most likely to see action on relatively soon.

(a) Supreme Court vacancy:  Highly placed Republicans have decided that Trump will safely nominate a conservative to replace Scalia.  If he doesn't, I expect Republicans to begin looking for ways to impeach him soon thereafter.  This is absolutely the main thing that got the support of many Republicans, and it would be a surprise if he changed directions immediately.  (It also makes me sad that the most important thing about the president is that he gets to appoint Supreme Court justices, but that's another matter.)

(b) Appointing a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton:  I had forgotten that Trump said he was going to do this until I read about it today.  You can add this concern to Clinton's already deep frustration about losing the election.  I am one of those who thinks that she clearly broke the law (as well as going against the advice of her own people) in setting up a private email server.  I strongly believe that justice should be applied equally to the wealthy and powerful as well as to the weak.  Nevertheless, I really hope Trump does not take this step.  It reminds me too much of the late Roman Republic.  Those in public office were immune from prosecution, but as soon as their positions expired, they were likely to be brought up on some charge or other.  The predictable result was that no one wanted to give up office for fear of facing endless court cases, so they held office longer and eventually destroyed the Republic.  We're a long way from ancient Rome, and I do feel that in this case a prosecution would be entirely justified.  The long-term precedent, however, is just too troubling for me.  (Consider that, of the last three presidents, Clinton was impeached, and there were serious discussions in Congress for impeaching both Bush and Obama.)  If the prosecutor is appointed (as I fear he will be), I hope he will pusue minimal penalties, such as loss of her security clearance and maybe her pension.  (Does she even get a pension?  I don't know, I assume so but I could be wrong.)  Jail time would be a serious mistake.  (Here's a brilliant idea I just read about:  Trump should pardon Clinton.  It keeps alive the idea that she did something that at least deserves investigation, while showing him to be more magnanimous than most people would expect.  I almost wonder if Clinton would decline the pardon on the grounds that she doesn't need it, and whether Trump would then appoint a special prosecutor...)

(c) Repealing ObamaCare:  This law, and Trump's promise to get rid of it, are undoubtedly important reasons for his electoral victory.  Republicans have voted several times for repeal in the last 6 years, only to be vetoed repeatedly.  Since they have control of Congress now, it should be a simple matter, right?  Actually, I doubt it.  What could be simpler than closing Guantanamo Bay, something that Obama could have done without even a new law?  And yet, 8 years later, it is still open and his promise is unfulfilled.  The PPACA is a huge law with a vast bureaucracy already.  It has taken years for it to get ramped up to full implementation, and trying to get rid of it all at once would cause serious dislocation.  I hope they vote to get rid of it, but I hope they don't do so in such a way as to cause a lot of issues for insurers and insureds.  (I'm sure in the long run, it will be easier on all of them, I just want to make sure the repeal makes it to the long run.)  Apparently alone in the world of political commentary, I value continuity strongly.  People count on it to make decisions.  Ripping a tumour out of a patient's body too quickly can be as harmful as the tumour itself, so I hope Congress and the president take their time with this operation.  I should also point out that Republicans are not close to a veto-proof majority in the Senate, so they may still have serious difficulties enacting repeal.

(d) Erecting The Wall:  This is Trump's signature campaign promise, and it will be substantially more difficult to implement than removing ObamaCare, and maybe even than implementing ObamaCare.  That's a huge border, folks.  I don't think the Mexicans are going to pay for it willingly, and even if Trump can get money for it, there are still enormous obstacles to overcome.  I would be amazed if there were much more than a plan to build a wall at the end of Trump's first term.  Maybe a few sections of the wall in especially vulnerable areas (or areas where building it would be technically feasible and not too expensive).

(e) Repealing international trade agreements such as NAFTA and the TPP:  Compared to some of the other items, these would be relatively simple.  The TPP does not even need Congress's assent.  The interesting thing to me is that much of the opposition to the TPP has come from the left, so they may actually agree with him on that one.  I'm sure there are large segments of the electorate that are still opposed to NAFTA and would be happy to get rid of it.  I don't see any good that could come out of these retrenchments, but if Trump's attacks on foreign trade are limited to these two items, I will consider us lucky.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Trump's Success

I heard several analysts on Tuesday night saying that Trump was the only one who saw the wave of populism and figured out how to get on it.  I think this is giving Trump way too much credit for being in the right place and time.  I certainly won't say that he deserves no credit for winning the election, but let's think about the populist wave and resentment against Washington.

There is always a lot of resentment against the government.  If you don't think so, you probably live in a wealthy section of a big city, because I am sure it is there and I hear it all the time.  In many ways, Reagan's election was the same theme, and there have been many would-be populist candidates in the meantime.  Think about Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, Hermann Cain, Bernie Sanders...They all lacked something.  One thing they lacked is that they never got a major party nomination.  Perot didn't even try.  If he had (and I don't know which party that would have been), I'm sure he could have won.  It would have been difficult to defeat Bush for the Republican nomination in 1992, but he might have had a chance in the crowded Democratic field.  (I have no idea if he would have gotten any support for his policies, but he does seem to have crossed party lines with his support.)

The other candidates tried but failed.  Maybe the presumptive candidate was too powerful to lose to an outsider.  Sanders had a hard battle against Hillary Clinton, and came close to winning -- may have won, had it not been for superdelegates, if I understand correctly.  In a different year, such as 1992 or 2004, he might have gotten the nomination.  Other candidates may have been less appealling for other reasons.  Cain gathered a certain amount of support in 2012, but got derailed by accusations of sexual assault.  Maybe he wouldn't have won anyway.  Buchanan was the closest to Trump in one way:  he was willing to say what he thought, no matter how many people he offended.  But he wasn't a millionaire who had been in the public spotlight for 30+ years.  That is a powerful advantage which none of the other would-be populists have had.  (Perot was plenty rich, but he was not in the public eye nearly as much as Trump has been, for the amount of time he has been.)

So Trump came along at the right time, when the Republican field was open, no obvious candidate having a lot of support right away.  This would not have worked so well in 2012; he might have won the nomination, but it would have been much more difficult against Romney.  He might have won in 2008, but the Republicans were at such a disadvantage in that election that he would have had little chance of winning the election.  In 2004, he would have stood no chance against an incumbent president.  Looking back a little further, there was obviously a large populist element in the 1992 election, where Perot got nearly 20%.  But Trump would not have won the nomination against a sitting president.  In 1996, Perot was a much weaker candidate and still won 8% of the vote.  Trump would have stood a good chance for the Republican nomination that year, as hardly anyone was excited about Bob Dole.  However, Clinton had the advantage of incumbency, and sitting presidents have lost re-election bids only 5 times since 1900, most of them under extraordinary circumstances (strong third-party runs in 1912 and 1992; the Great Depression in 1932; Gerald Ford had never run on a national ticket prior to becoming president and running in 1976).  (Comparatively, 13 sitting presidents did win re-election, mostly by large margins, including some of the largest in history -- 1936, 1964, and 1984 -- and several times when they appeared to have little chance, notably 1940, 1948, and 2004.)  It would certainly not have been as favourable a chance for a populist Republican as it would have been this year.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

In Hillary's Shoes

I hear that Hillary Clinton gave a magnanimous concession speech.  Nevertheless, I suspect she is still bitterly disappointed at the moment.  I know I would be.  She might be directing her anger at a lot of people:  Trump, of course; Jim Comey; Julian Assange; maybe Anthony Weiner; maybe a little for Bernie Sanders as well.  But I'll bet that, in the long run, the person she is most angry at is Barack Obama.

The 2008 election was hers to lose.  Everybody knew.  Everybody knew that the Republican candidate would face very difficult odds with such an unpopular sitting president.  Hillary Clinton seemed set to be nominated.  There was hardly any opposition.  I'll bet that Obama himself didn't expect to win when he started his candidacy; he was probably laying the groundwork for the future.  And then this thing happened, and he got all this support, and suddenly Hillary was sitting on the sidelines watching him sweep to victory for the nomination and the presidency.

Eight years later, Hillary is the one trying to run with a long-time president from her own party.  Obama is not nearly as unpopular as Bush was, but he has made people angry about a number of things, above all the PPACA (a/k/a ObamaCare).  Premiums are going up, insurers are dropping out of the state markets, the ones who are still in are losing money.  It is not necessary to debate the merits of the law; the point is that many people disliked it (it has always had high unfavourable ratings) and the premium hikes this year have made even more people angry.

Then Bernie Sanders, a guy who has done nothing, by most standards, to deserve to win a nomination.  Much like Obama, but without Obama's racial background or his presidential demeanour.  Not again!  But Hillary pulled out all the stops, and she managed to turn this challenge back.  And the Republicans nominated Donald Trump, a man with tremendous negatives, whom hardly anyone but his core supporters thought had a chance to win the election.  Hillary ran a good campaign, I thought.  She had a good slogan, a good logo, and she appeared both presidential and well-informed in the debates.  The video with Billy Bush seemed to sink what little chance Trump might have had.

And then...the FBI investigation, Wikileaks, the FBI investigation closes but then re-opens just days before the election.  (Actually, that's not true, since apparently a good portion of people voted well before November 8th, but it has some validity.)  Still, she was confident.  Nate Silver gave her over a 70% chance of winning.  Clearly she and her supporters expected to win.  During election coverage, I kept hearing how shocked her supporters seemed, just stunned that she could be losing.  A lot of people were shocked, of course, but imagine how she must have felt.  All those years of planning and dreaming.  Twice when she seemed virtually guaranteed to win.  And then, to lose in a surprise like that without any real warning.  I'll bet she's really bitter, and I'd bet that, when it all sinks in, the person she most resents is the outgoing president.

Postscript:  Ted Cruz could end up in a comparable position depending on how Trump's presidency goes.  He was very well organized and seemed likely to get the nomination but for Trump.  He's still young enough that he will have other chances, but what if Trump's presidency tarnishes the Republican image so much that we don't see another Republican president for 30 years?  I'm not saying it's likely, I'm just imagining scenarios, and it could happen that Ted Cruz was "thisclose" to becoming president and instead goes down in history as an unknown.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Election Results and Consequences

The presidential election still isn't over, but I can make one prediction that I feel confident about:  at least 30% of the electorate will think it is the end of our country, and another 15% will be depressed until the first scandal hits the next administration.

My suggestion for solving this problem:  Think about your most cherished social issue that is currently under dispute, such as same-sex marriage or abortion.  First, ask yourself how far your views need to prevail in order for you to feel morally reconciled to the result.  Your town?  County?  State?  Or do you have to see your views enforced on the entire country (or world, for that matter) before you can sleep in peace at night?

Now ask yourself the converse.  Presumably people on the opposite side of the issue feel as strongly as you do.  How far are you willing to let them extend their interpretation if they are successful?  Remember that the answer will be symmetric with the same answer that you gave above.  If you will not rest until the whole country shares your views, you have to be prepared for the other side to insist on going equally far to enforce its views.

Now that you have thought about it from both perspectives, give your final answer.  If you live in a state where 70% of the citizens share your views, can you live with not enforcing it on other states where 40% or fewer of the citizens agree with you?  That is the principle of federalism, and the only way that national elections will cease to be such heart-rending issues is if we allow smaller, more homogeneous units to set their own policies.  Yes, we are a single nation in many respects, but we are also deeply divided on many issues.  Having a national defense policy makes a lot of sense; having a national policy on same-sex marriages or abortion makes a lot less sense.  Until people come to accept that, they will have to live with the fact that there are going to be many angry people on one side or the other.  And if the election doesn't go your way, it could be your side next week.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Shopping carts

While waiting in line to pay for my groceries today, I started thinking about what an amazing thing the shopping cart is.  It's not a technological marvel, admittedly, but it is really, really convenient for buying groceries.  Imagine if you had to put all your groceries in a hand basket.  You would probably be more inclined to make more frequent, smaller shopping trips, as is still common in Europe, especially where people use public transportation rather than driving to the store.  I only go once a week unless I forget something, and even weekly shopping is more than I want to do.  I would go once a month if I had a big enough refrigerator and freezer, making only small trips to get produce and milk that don't last that long.

I was looking down through the bars on a shopping cart.  Not making the cart's bottom and sides solid is an obvious benefit for the store.  If they were, the corners would be impossible to keep clean of bacteria and mold, and anything that spilled or leaked would be a bother to clean.  As it is, they only have to spray the carts down to clean them.

The metal frame seems virtually indestructible, and there is no paint to chip off.  Only the handle, the children's seat, and sometimes plastic covering for the corners are vulnerable to chipping off.  The weakest point is definitely at the wheels, which always seem to be getting stuck.  I think that is more a consequence of the environment where they operate than the wheels themselves, however:  grocery stores inevitably have things on them that can get up in the wheels, and the carts also go outside.  If someone could come up with an inexpensive solution for a wheel that somehow won't get jammed easily by dirt and debris, it would be a great invention.

A quick visit to Wikipedia tells me that shopping carts were invented in 1937 by Sylvan Goodman.  That's about what I expected, since there would need to be a sizeable number of customers with cars to make the extra amount of goods worth carrying.  I also learn that the only major change was patented in 1949 by Orla Watson, who came up with the idea for a hinged back wall so the carts could be pushed into one another in a "telescoping" fashion to save space.  The success of this design is evident from the fact that shopping carts at almost every store use it.  You don't see a lot of innovation in shopping carts.  The one different kind I have seen is a short one with two small baskets, one on top and one below.  I personally avoid these because I don't like having to bend down to access to bottom cart (bad back), and if I only need the top basket, I just carry a hand basket.  Although, now that I think of it, I have started shopping with a hand basket and ended up with a gallon of milk or a 12-pack of sodas that made me regret my choice.

In America, it is common for stores to place stalls or "corrals" in the parking lot for customers to leave their carts.  In other countries, it seems to be common to force customers to return their carts next to the store into order to get their small deposit back.  I have only seen this system in the U.S. at Aldi.  It is sad for me to go to stores and see carts left all over the place:  pushed up on an island curb, or randomly stacked together in the middle of a few parking spaces, with a corral only a few feet away.  I am glad that this is not more common where I live now, but I have lived in places where it is the norm.  I feel like I can see the shredding of society's fabric by the number of shopping carts not put away.  Obviously, this is not a major issue facing the country, but it does seem to be a symptom of growing numbers of people deciding that it is not worth their trouble to perform even this common courtesy at such minimal effort on their own part.  (I vaguely seem to recall a time without corrals in the parking lot, but I'm not sure if it's a real memory or not.  They had to be created at some point, I guess, so I wonder whether they were a response to loose carts or whether they were added as a convenience for customers.)

Like so many common items in America, shopping carts go by different names in different regions.  I'm pretty sure I grew up in Virginia calling them "shopping baskets," but I have been saying "shopping carts" for so long now that I'm not positive.  I remember moving to Illinois -- my first time out of my home town -- and finding it quaint how everyone there called them buggies.  "Buggies" to me meant the things pulled by horses or else dune buggies, and neither seemed especially close to what a cart was.  Apparently they get called "carriages" or "wagons" in some places in the Northeast, which seems close to buggy, and "trolleys" in the U.K. and some former colonies.  Whatever you call them, you have to admit that grocery shopping would be a bother without them.

Monday, October 31, 2016

What do voters think?

There is a popular video on YouTube right now, a skit from Saturday Night live about a game of "Black Jeopardy."  If you haven't seen it, you should, both because it is funny and because I think there are a lot of things about race relations in America to learn from it (though perhaps not always the things that most people take from it).

But I don't want to talk about race relations; I want to talk about politics.  At one point, Tom Hanks's character responds to the Jeopardy "answer" "They out here saying that every vote counts" with "Come on, they already decided who wins even before it happens."  And in the skit, it is axiomatic that this is a standard view of blacks in America, as well as an assumption shared by many whites.  This strikes me as extraordinary.

I say it is extraordinary, although I grew up among people who thought along similar lines.  What is extraordinary is that no political analysts that I am aware of ever discusses this segment of the electorate.  No politician aims campaign ads or slogans at people like this.

Still, there are people who believe this.  Not just a few members of fringe groups, but relatively large swaths of potential voters.  Wouldn't some smart political strategist want to tap into these voters?  I suspect that there are many who are aware of them (how could they not be?), but they don't dare on the grounds that news agencies and pundits would mock them out of contention.  You are supposed to stick to serious points, and how do you appeal to paranoid voters with serious arguments?  Or at least, with arguments that pass as serious among the cognoscenti?  So to the extent that politicians try to appeal to these voters, it is indirectly, by implying things:  we're going to clean up Washington, we're going to end corruption, etc.

It is probably obvious that this description closely fits Donald Trump's campaign.  Trump has few specific things to say, but he has been emphatic that he is an outsider and he is going to fix the corrupt political system.  The fact that reporters and other politicians hate him increasese his appeal among voters who think things are rigged.  And the fact that he thumbs his nose at these other people and insults them feeds the image that he is different.  Only someone who is truly not a career politician can make a credible claim that he is going to do things differently.  Reagan had something similar going; although he had been governor of California, he had never been an official in Washington, and the elite looked down their noses at him.  Of course, Reagan was very educated about politics, had thought deeply on the issues, and had a much more moderate approach, so his campaign was much different in tone than Trump's.  One of the advantages of Reagan's approach is that he alienated few people, and therefore was very successful.  Trump has alienated as many voters as he has attracted, but his supporters are even more emphatic because they know their man will not mix with the existing political class on any terms except his own.

Trump's two signature issues, immigration and trade, are symptomatic.  I have said for many years that politicians could win great support by pushing a hard line on these two.  (For the record, I agree with enforcing existing laws on immigration, but I oppose tariffs or other restrictions on foreign trade.)  I'm glad trade restrictionism has never caught on in my lifetime, but I am continually surprised that no one has pushed for stronger action on immigration.  Sure, some politicians on the Republican side have campaigned for tougher immigration laws, but no one has made it a signature issue.  And there is that odd phenomenon that even those who do make a point of supporting immigration enforcement, such as Marco Rubio, seem to melt when it comes time to craft actual legislation.  It is so frowned upon in the public square that no one dares to risk his political career arguing for a point that, in my opinion, is a sure electoral winner.

Someone like Tom Hanks's character in Black Jeopardy, as well as many others of his ilk -- and we have to include a lot of blacks in this group -- are going to support Trump because they think the system is rigged, and any politician who says he is going to fix it is too much a part of the system to be truly credible.  There is no way to paint Trump as part of the system, and that makes him exactly what these voters are looking for.

Stepping back a moment, however, from specific candidates and elections, I would like to ask why we don't discuss these voters on a regular basis?  And by "these voters," I mean not just those who think that elections are rigged, but anyone holding views that would never get accepted in national journals or newspapers.  Some of these views are, of course, odious, but I don't think it does any good just to dismiss the people who hold them and pretend they don't exist.  This ties back to my last post about "realms of ignorance":  vast portions of the electorate simply don't think about politics that much, and therefore have very unsophisticated, and sometimes stupid, views.  But that doesn't mean they are stupid people.  Perhaps they do have a point if there are elections every two years but nothing ever seems to change from their perspective.  What a revelation it would be if politicians started talking about issues in terms that mattered to these people rather than debating ever more obscure policy points.  Obviously, we need people who understand the finer points of policy; that's how good laws get made.  But we also need an electorate who has a reason to care about different policy choices, and if little or nothing that the government does resonates with them -- if they feel that everything is more or less fixed and their vote counts for nothing -- then we need to address that, too.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Realms of Ignorance

That grandiose title is simply meant to convey that people can be stupid about some things and not others.  I enjoy a good collection of people saying stupid things on the internet as much as anyone; this one, for example.  All of these are cases of people being too ignorant for most people even to fathom, but let's consider how they are being ignorant for a moment.

Several are, of course, about spelling, or knowing the sound of a word without thinking of what it really represents:  "hall of cost" for holocaust, "meaty oaker" for mediocre (that one gets me every time), "flaming young" for filet mignon, "synonym rolls" for cinnamon rolls, "Rosetta Stone" for Rosa Parks.  Although they evince terrible spelling, in none of these cases is the person getting the meaning wrong because of misunderstanding the root.  The last one is not so much spelling as a person who has heard a name getting it mixed up with something that sounds similar.

Some do show a real misunderstanding of the concept, such as thinking that chicken and turkey are the names of meats without knowing that they are also animals (I know, how is that possible?), thinking squirrels and/or dolphins are reptiles, referring to a "morning sunset," or thinking that "rotating tires" refers to the same kind of rotation that happens as you drive.  All of these are people who probably would know better if they thought about it, or at least would recognize how silly they sound once it was explained.  It's not hard to see how someone might slip and write "morning sunset," and although it's hard to see how someone could think squirrels or dolphins are reptiles, it's probably a case of someone trying to come up with what group both animals are in and not stopping to think that the first thing that occurred to him was a very bad answer.  The mistake about rotating tires is perfectly understandable if you have never thought about the subject before.  The mistake was to think that there wasn't some other meaning to the term:  if it seems ridiculous to pay someone to rotate your tires because they constantly rotate themselves, yet people seem to do it, you're probably not understanding something.  This is one of the most common mistakes I have noticed, and it is particularly noticeable among comedians.  They pick something that seems silly on the face of it and treat it as though it really is as illogical as it appears.  Sometimes, I know, they say these things in mock ignorance, but there's no doubt that a lot of comedians think they have really hit on something insightful when they make these jokes.  That's why I'm wary of political comedians:  because political issues are usually complicated and, like anything relating to people's collective behaviour, have a lot of subtlety and unspoken assumptions behind them, they can be easy targets.  However, the simplified version you get from a comedian is probably missing out on a lot of the key issues, so this dumbs down the debate.  I'd rather people stop and think about the problems that aren't obvious than that they learn a quick quip with which to cut down their opponents without really saying anything useful.

Enough of that rant.  Some of these dumb statements show a lack of common sense.  The classic case is the person who falls for the idea that he can recharge his cell phone in the microwave.  There are a lot of things that aren't intuitive about technology, so you can't really blame this person for not being sure that it wouldn't work.  The problem is more that he didn't stop to consider the likelihood that someone was trolling him and double check before risking his phone in an experiment.  From a few old wives' tales we now have a huge collection of "urban legends," many of which, I'm sure, start out with people deliberately trying to confuse the issue.  There is a lot of useful advice on the internet, but you should stop and think about any of it before proceeding.  If you're not going to double-check, at least consider the possible consequences of being trolled.  It's not too bad to have your time wasted on something useless, but losing a phone to a prankster is frustrating.

One person asks if it takes 18 months for twins to be born.  You would think that a brief consideration of what's going on inside the womb -- the developement of a fetus -- would show you that two babies develope at the same time and not one after the other.  It's a silly mistake, but not so silly that it is inconceivable that someone might wonder.  Remember this when they tell you there are no such things as stupid questions.  (Hint:  they don't really think that.)  Another person asks if styrofoam earplugs are rubber bullets.  Heck, if I didn't recognize them as earplugs, I might think they were rubber bullets.  If a person hasn't seen them in context before and just finds a few on the street, how would he know better?  The same logic goes for the person who thought "Titanic" was a movie rather than a re-enactment of an historical event.  Sure, we've all heard of the sinking of the Titanic...or maybe not all of us have.  Is it really a sign of such great ignorance not to know this relatively minor piece of history?  I've seen movies before where I looked up to see if they were historical or not.  They weren't as well-known as the Titanic, but someone could easily think I was ignorant for not knowing the history.

What I'm trying to get at here is that, while these statements all seem literally unbelievable, the people who made them may not be as clueless as they seem.  I have huge blind spots about some things, and I'm sure I've come off as equally ignorant.  The first wedding I ever attended on my own, I didn't realize I was supposed to get a present for the couple.  I had never been to a wedding where my parents hadn't taken care of that detail, and it never occurred to me.  It is reasonable to think that someone would pick up that knowledge by age 20, but it doesn't require great stupidity not to learn it.  We all have limited amounts of attention to spend on learning things, and we all have different interests and strengths.  With such a broad scope to "common knowledge," it is hardly surprising that people don't pick up one aspect or another of things that most people take for granted.  Sure, if you stop to think about something, you might realize that the ideas you have been harbouring for years are dubious, but the whole point is that we don't stop to think about everything.  We can't, even if we wanted to.  And social media lends itself to rapid, instinctive responses.  You would rarely see these comments in a book, or even an article, because they would have to go through a process to get published.  When someone blurts out the first thing that occurs to him, you're bound to end up with some mistakes that sound really silly.  But as you're laughing at them, don't forget that you could sound equally silly on some subject that you haven't had occasion to post on social media about.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Disadvantages for Conservatives of a Trump Victory

This election is going to be bad for conservatism no matter what the result.  I think the tendency is for conservatives, even those who don't like Trump, to think that a victory for him would still be marginally better than another Democratic presidency.  That may be -- but then again, it may not be.  I know the primary reason for this feeling is that it is the only hope of keeping the Supreme Court from being completely liberal.  This is true, but I'm not sure this is a winning battle in the long run.  Conservatives hope the Supreme Court won't invent new "rights" and entitlements that further expand government and limit freedom, but liberals have little to fear from an activist conservative court because conservative justices are, on principle, opposed to activism from the bench.  Moreover, the court system as a whole is so filled with liberal judges that conservatives often need the Supreme Court to overturn lower court rulings that have already been made and set a precedent.  Unless something is done about this systematically, it seems like conservatism only stands to lose in the long run.

But let's assume that appointing a conservative justice or two would be important victories, and let's assume, further, that Trump would actually appoint the justices he says he would.  That still leaves a lot of areas for him to mess things up.  We already know he is opposed to free trade, and there is hardly any way to hurt the country's economy more quickly than throwing up trade barriers.  He has taken a strong stand against illegal immigration, which could be a benefit although his way of talking about it often reinforces liberals' worst stereotypes about conservatives.

Apart from those issues, it's hard to tell exactly what Trump believes.  He has taken a conservative stance on most issues, but he has held other views for much of his life.  (His views on immigration were apparently different just a few years ago.)  Whether he is pro-life or not I don't think is particularly salient, because there is little that can be done at the national level relating to abortion, and most of what can be done is in the purview of Congress rather than the President.  I don't know if Trump is strongly pro-2nd amendment, but he certainly doesn't seem to be strongly in favour of gun control, which means we would not normally expect any major initiatives from him to upset the existing situation (which is, on the whole, favourable to 2nd amendment supporters).  My sense is that his views on government as a whole are decisively not in favour of smaller government.  His rhetoric is that he wants to make government work better, not that he wants to limit its role in society.

Here's a crucial point:  the worst government expansions occur under Republicans, because they bring half the Republican party with them.  I supported George Bush, but in retrospect his domestic policy was a huge step backward for those favouring individual action and less government interference.  And then Republicans have nothing to complain about when a Democrat does the same thing.  A Trump presidency would be Bush 2.0, only worse, I fear.  After pushing Bush into the presidency, I cannot back another candidate who is not decisively in support of smaller government.

Then there is the problem with Trump's personality.  I can hardly conceive of all the off-the-cuff things he is likely to say in four years at the top of the government, many of which will be offensive and/or hint vaguely (or not so vaguely) at threatening his opponents, which I expect to include many Republicans as well as Democrats.  All of this will reflect very badly on the Republican Party in whose name he ran for office.  The next Republican presidential candidate after Trump will have to spend an inordinate amount of effort proving that he is not Trump, which will detract from his main message.

Some of this is true already, of course:  even if not elected, Trump will loom large in the next election.  But imagine how much larger he will appear if he has served in the highest office for four years (or eight).  One of the reasons that I refuse to support him is that I will not be making excuses for the party for his behaviour in the future.  I will, of course, support any conservative candidate nominated, but if anyone starts an argument with "What about Trump?...," I want to have a clean conscience so I can say I didn't support him and do not take responsibility for any actions he takes.  No candidate for president is perfect, as we all know, but there is a difference between electing someone who makes mistakes and one who is known to act in a certain way as a matter of habit.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Reality and Simulation

I read a few weeks ago that Elon Musk, and apparently a lot of other people, think we are very likely living in a simulation.  His argument goes like this:

The strongest argument for us probably being in a simulation, I think, is the following: Forty years ago we had Pong--two rectangles and a dot. That is what games were.
Now 40 years later we have photorealistic, 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously and it's getting better every year. And soon we'll have virtual reality, we'll have augmented reality. If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality.

Although this seems to be a popular view among the technological elite in San Francisco, there are people who disagree.  Some people think it is more likely that humanity will destroy itself before we get to the level of simulations required.  Another line of argument is that the technology is harder than Musk is giving it credit for.

I tend to agree with the latter criticism.  I am not a connoisseur of VR games, but I am sceptical whether we have anything today that suggests a future where "the games will become indistinguishable from reality."  Musk seems to be committing the basic fallacy of projecting technology in a linear fashion.  He's not literally saying that technology will continue to progress at the same rate -- he even argues that it could slow significantly -- but rather than the developement of better and better simulations will be a matter of simple progress, the way video games have progressed to this point.

There are two things that I would object.  The first is that efficiency tends to drop off rapidly as you approach extremes.  A person projecting the future of travel in 1950 might note that we had gone from horse and buggy to cars to airplanes to jets in a short time.  Why wouldn't we have flying cars now?  Why not travel around the world in minutes rather than hours?  Why not commercial space travel?  Maybe those things will happen eventually, but there are limits to physical laws of weight and inertia that make the leap to air travel more plausible and more efficient than some obvious next steps.  With computers, we may be able to overcome the physical limitations (although I consider that problematic), but the programming requirements seem even larger.  Who is capable of creating a completely realistic world for VR?  Even if we started with a very basic physical universe -- say, the Big Bang -- and let everything evolve from there, so that no one would have to program in all the data points in our present world, there are other issues.  One obvious one is that we don't know all the physical laws of the universe, and any attempt to simulate our universe starting from the very beginning would end up with some very odd results if we got them wrong.  And then, if the simulation really did start with the Big Bang, the chance that it would end up with anything like our present world are virtually zero.  Musk posits billions of VR machines, any one of which we could be in; but even billions of simulations would have virtually no chance of producing us at random.  That even assumes the fact that we could build a machine that could keep track of all the particles in the universe, which would seem to be impossible on the face of it:  how could a machine in the universe have enough memory to keep track of the whole universe?  But anything less than that would imply that someone would have to program in some incredibly detailed parameters to set up our world, in a way that no one could possibly do even if he could somehow access all the data.

You would think that our inability to construct a basic word processor without bugs would be a problem for a completely realistic simulation, but not Musk.

People have come up with other, you know, more exotic ideas, looking for glitches in reality, sort of like in The Matrix when the black cat walks by twice. Remember that scene with Neo? So, looking for mistakes. I don't buy that at all because a very clever error-correcting simulation could simply wipe clean the memory of any such glitch after correcting it.
Maybe a "very clever" error correction algorithm could do that, but I haven't seen any evidence of such a thing in our present world that would lead me to believe that it could happen in a simulation.  Moreover, it's not even clear how the simulation could detect an error.  How would it know what an error means?  We check errors now by doing things like checksums to validate that a file is the same after it has been copied, but a violation of the physical laws of the simulation would imply that the program could keep perfect track of its own rules and note when something violated them.  More likely, it would not notice a violation because it would be due to a bug in the fundamental simulation code.

At base, I think the idea that we're living in a simulation is pretty silly, and I think the evidence Musk gives for it is strikingly weak.  One thing he doesn't address (at least not that I have noticed -- maybe he has elaborated elsewhere) is what exactly we're doing here.  Is he saying that we are "non-player characters" who have been programmed with our own consciousness?  Because that seems about the most implausible of all:  it implies that the programmers have unlocked the key to consciousness to the point where they can not only create a conscious computer, but even conscious elements within a computer. 
Or perhaps we are supposed to be game elements that have evolved consciousness? Again, that seems unlikely. What I thought he meant at first was that we were players in a simulation, physical people who are so absorbed in the game that we don't realize any more that it's a simulation. But how could we possibly become so divorced from our own physical bodies that we could no longer feel them or tend to their needs? Or are we all, like in the matrix, being kept alive by computers while our minds are permanently locked into virtual reality?

There is an old philosophical question that asks how we know we aren't dreaming. I believe a Taoist phrasing of it is, how do we know we're not butterflies dreaming we're humans? Well, it seems pretty unlikely that butterflies could have such a vivid imagination of human lives, but there really doesn't seem to be any way to prove that we aren't humans in a dream state. A more modern formulation is to ask how we know we are not just brains in a vat, being kept alive artificially, all of our perceptions being simulated by some scientist. The simulation hypothesis seems like another variation on this, except for Musk's confidence that his computer simulation theory is extraordinarily likely to be right. I suppose there is no way to disprove it, or any other similar theories, in a definitive fashion. However, I am confident that we will continue to behave as though our physical world is very real, and we will continue to treat those who think it isn't as insane.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Advantages for Conservatives of a Clinton Victory

For conservatives, this is a sad election any way it turns out, but there are advantages as well as disadvantages in every situation.  I haven't gotten the sense that either major candidate has a big advantage to this point, but it seems that the edge is to Clinton.  If that happens and we do find ourselves with a third consecutive Democratic win in a presidential election, obviously that wouldn't be good for conservatives on the whole.  On the other hand, a Trump win might be even worse, so let's consider the possible advantages that might accrue to conservatives from a Clinton victory.

The one thing that everyone is concerned about is the Supreme Court.  It is almost inconceivable that Hillary Clinton would not appoint a very liberal justice to fill Scalia's spot, and there may be two or more retirements in the next four years as well.  The Supreme Court, which has been pretty tightly balanced for years now, would become (barring unprecedented rejections on the part of the Senate) dominated by liberals.  There could be a bright spot even in that disaster, however, and it could happen in one of two ways.  One is that the liberal justices, not wanting to be seen as dictating court policy over the objections of their conservative colleagues, might moderate their own opinions.  I think this is more likely to happen on less important cases, but sometimes cases that appear minor at the time take on major significance later.  The other possibility is that Congress (presuming it remains Republican) might finally react against an assertive Supreme Court and initiate legislation to rein it in.  It is unlikely, but I could imagine its happening, especially if the court made a few reckless rulings that were both out of touch with majority sensibilities and without clear Constitutional backing.  I'm not really sure what "reining it in" would look like.  I have thought of setting up a possible Congressional-Presidential override of a Supreme Court decision when a supermajority agrees; setting up some other body to review Supreme Court decisions; or appointing more justices.  The last seems the least likely to help, but the most likely to pass.  At least it would change the dynamic of Supreme Court appointments so that there was less riding on each one.  A single justice who sits for an unusually long time or rules in an unorthodox way can swing the court's decisions dramatically, and with only 9 members, every appointment is potentially crucial.

It is almost always the case that a Presidential election brings success in Congressional elections to the winning party, and I don't expect that to change.  (In fact, it is possible that Trump could break the trend by winning the election but standing so far from other Republicans that they actually lose seats.)  Unless it is a landslide, however, the mid-term elections might well undo the results of 2016 in Congress and go even further in the other direction.

The best thing that seems likely to come of this awful presidential campaign is that the next Republican nominee would be far stronger.  I would think that Ted Cruz has positioned himself awfully well as both the last man standing before Trump sewed up the nomination and a person that showed he was willing to stand up to Trump at the convention.  His endorsement a few weeks ago seemed like it might be a great move:  he had shown his independence, but ultimately he backed Trump like a loyal party member.  But after the video's release, now it is looking like Cruz's timing could not have been worse.  If he had not endorsed Trump, he could say, "I told you so!"  Now if he reverts to opposing him, he will just look inconsistent.

Regardless of whether the next nominee is Cruz or someone else, I think the Republicans will probably choose a strong party member (I expect them to change their rules to prevent another fiasco like this year).  I also think that Democrats will be in an especially weak position in 2020, although  that remains to be seen.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Vice-presidential Debate

Typically, the vice presidential candidate is viewed as an attack dog:  someone who can make edgy attacks on the other side while the presidential candidate remains dignified.  This is exactly reversed in the Trump/Pence ticket.  Trump says edgy things all the time; Pence is a stabilizing influence who pooh-poohs his running mate's wilder attacks.

We have never had a president who wasn't an avowed Christian.  I was struck by the fact that both Kaine and Pence seem to be serious in their faith, unlike many politicians who are Christian mostly because it is a political disadvantage not to be, at least nominally.  But we will have an atheist president soon, I would venture.  Kaine and Pence grew up at a time when most Americans were raised Christian as a matter of course.  I think the next generation contains many more people who were raised either indifferent to religion or hostile to it.  I would be surprised if we didn't have an atheist or agnostic president in the next 20 years.

I typically hate watching debates because I find the candidate that I support saying things that embarrass me.  Sometimes the content is bad, sometimes the delivery, but whatever it is I seem to experience the debate vicariously as though I were on the stage.  This is one of the very few debates when I haven't felt that way about the Republican candidate.  Pence was astonishingly calm and cogent.  I'm trying to think back if I can recall another Republican candidate who was so composed, but I can't think of any since Reagan.  I didn't always agree with Pence, and there were certainly times when I wanted to step into his shoes and deliver a more pointed response; but he was never embarrassing.  The fact that he has not been a serious presidential candidate is interesting.  Obviously, debating demeanour is not the only criterion, or even the most important.  Pence hasn't run, of course, but if people thought his debating skills could get him elected, he would probably have generated more interest and perhaps thought about it.  Anyway, I was surprised that someone as comfortable as he was in the debate did not get more consideration as a presidential candidate.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Evaluating purchases 2

Some more things that I bought, or received as gifts after asking for them, and how they worked out for me.

Fixr tool:  I have an unhealthy fixation with multitools.  Somehow, it seems like my life will get organized if only I have the right set of tools in my pocket.  Even if that is true, however, this tool isn't the one.  It looks awesome, and it is very solidly constructed.  The one weakness is the rotating gold part, which you have to move to get to the blade and the screwdrivers.  It was pretty tight at first, but quickly became loose and rotated in my pocket.  This left an exposed blade and made it snag on everything.  The screwdrivers are hard to use, even if you can get the rotating component to hold still, which you rarely can.  The "box opener" is the jagged part.  Seriously, it works if you push hard enough but it isn't very good.  The worst of all is the blade, which you'll notice tucked into the middle of the tool right above the word "rotate" in the picture above.  This blade might be useful for cutting a piece of string, but that's about it; it's far too enclosed to cut anything else.  About the only thing this tool looks like it would be good for is as a pry bar.


"Reading" glasses:  Even though I asked for these things, I have to admit that they looked like quite a gimmick at first.  These glasses are constructed with mirrors that allow you to see at a 90 degree angle, i.e. you can effectively see your feet with your eyes pointing straight ahead.  The advantage of this is that you can lie in a prone position, where you can normally only see the ceiling, and view things like television or books that are perpedicular to the bed.  They have an obvious use for people who have to lie prone for medical reasons, but they seem like they are otherwise fit chiefly for the lazy.  Actually, though, I've found them to be very useful.  I was getting to a point where sitting up was very hard on my back, and you pretty much can't read while lying on your stomach, so flat on my back was the only comfortable position.  These allow me to read a book or use a tablet easily.  The mirrors seem to magnify the image just a little, which makes it possible to read even though the book might be at a little greater distance than you would normally hold it.  About the only downside to these glasses is that there is nothing holding your eyes away from the clear plastic that you see through, so it is very easy to smudge them.  Probably it wouldn't be too hard to affix something to set your eyes back about 1/8".  Also, I lost the screw to one of the arms, and I found that regular glasses screws are much too small to use as a replacement.  I just stuck a short piece of wire through the arm to hold it in place.

Butter crock: I heard about these nifty devices from a friend at work.  You put water in the cylindrical part and then submerge the butter bell upside-down in it.  The advantage to this arrangement is that it keeps an airtight seal around the butter, so you can leave it on the table, where it stays soft, instead of keeping it in the refrigerator.  There are some caveats.  Butter does sometimes fall into the water, and you have to change the water every day or two or three.  Some people claim that you can just leave butter on the table in a regular butter dish for the same length of time, a claim I haven't tested.  I got this for my wife, who appreciates real butter instead of spreadable margarine, and she loves it.  It is a little high maintenance, but soft butter is a treat that everyone should experience.  I had forgotten how good butter was until I tried it with this.



Foaming soap dispenser:  I have read a number of complaints with this dispenser, but they don't relate to the central feature, which (for me) is that fact that it ejects foaming soap rather than liquid soap.  I find it much more pleasant to get foam into my hands than liquid soap, which is gooey and has to be worked into a lather.  Unfortunately, the ones we got did not come with instructions, so I didn't know how much water to add in with the soap.  At first I tried about a 1:1 ratio, which resulted in getting liquid soap for a few days before any foam came out.  I later read another dispenser's instructions that said to add water at a 5:1 ratio with soap.  It did not specify a need to shake the dispenser at any point, although I have tried this off and on when results were not satisfactory.  I don't know how these things work, but it seems to me that water and soap do not mix spontaneously, so you need to have a way to make sure both get into the pump.  Sometimes they do work, very nicely, and you get a rich later straight from the nozzle.  Other times, you get plain liquid soap (too thick) or a very watery foam that requires you to squirt several times before you have enough to wash your hands.  The latter was problematic for our dispenser because it didn't seem to have a good spring, so we practically had to pull the pump back up each time to get more out.  (It worked fine if you didn't use it for an hour.)  I have found them, on the whole, more trouble than they are worth.  It's not too hard to find a good container (although it's not trivial, either, as cheap plastic can be dressed up to look like anything), but getting a good pump seems to be nearly impossible, and I would gladly pay 2 or 3 times as much for one that would work consistently and not wear out for years.









Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Deaths by Terrorism vs. Other Means

Among those who do not support aggressive government reaction to the terrorist threat, a common argument is that terrorism is actually not much of a threat at all. After all, they point out, you are more likely to be killed in a car accident, to be shot, even to be shot by a toddler, than to die in a terrorist attack. (This argument is so well known that I'm not going to bother linking to instances of it, but they aren't hard to find if you don't believe me.)

As far as the death statistics go, they're not wrong. Even at the worst year, 2001, the number of deaths to terrorism was minuscule compared to almost any other cause, most of which (such as automobile accidents) we tolerate with hardly a word of protest. If its sole purpose was to save lives, the government could do far more good by increasing automobile safety regulations than by trying to stop terrorism.

The trouble, as anyone who stops to think about it for a few minutes realizes, is that it's not all about saving lives. Not because saving lives is unimportant, but rather because there is so much more to the consequences of terrorism than the number of deaths that result from it. For one thing, deaths to terrorism, while apparently random, are not accidental. We will never live in a world without accidental deaths, and I would argue that we already spend far too much effort trying to achieve that goal than we should. It is an entirely different matter when someone is trying to kill you. I get in my car every day knowing that I could be in a fatal accident, and I hardly think about it; but I would not walk at night in a dangerous part of a big city unless there really seemed to be no alternative. I am far more afraid of the possible existence of an individual who wants to do me in than I am by the probability of an accident.

Even that danger might become routine, and therefore less consciously threatening, if I had to live in such an area.  The things that people put up with to live in Beirut would appall anyone who grew up in America, but if that kind of violence became routine here, I have no doubt that we would learn to live with it.  The fact that terrorism on American soil is a relatively new threat makes it more frightening than it would otherwise be.

But these psychological explanations only hint at the greater significance of major acts of terrorism.  It is not the immediate consequences of an act such as 9/11 -- the dead bodies and destroyed buildings -- that cause such concern, but rather the significance of it as a signalling event.  America had been relatively safe from Islamic terrorism prior to that date; our sense of safety was shattered suddenly.  Again, it is the fact that it was an organized attack that made it more significant.  We knew that there was a movement in the Islamic world that viewed the United States as the Great Satan and wanted to harm us, and which had done harm repeatedly to other countries, including our European allies.  When members of that movement deliberately planned an attack on us, we assumed that it was the first of a series of attacks that they would make in the future.  By contrast, the Oklahoma City bombing, although equally shocking, was the work of one or two people without any coherent program (however unjustifiable).  There was no prospect of repeat attacks, and, indeed, there hasn't been anything similar.

These fears do not mean, of course, that our response was appropriate.  Leaving aside the issue of the resulting foreign wars, our efforts at domestic defense have been largely panicked and of dubious effectiveness.  I particularly thought that the hasty attempt to fix airline security was drastically overdone.

But the fact that we had such fears was, I believe, on the whole rational.  Again, not that I expected the death rate from terrorism to increase suddenly, but there were other consequences.  The stock market suffered its biggest one-day loss ever after remaining closed for 4 days.  Economic actors are particularly sensitive to disruption.  They depend on being able to calculate financial risk, which is only possible in a stable situation.  If people are suddenly afraid to fly, that throws all kinds of calculations out the window.  Tourist destinations suddenly expect to receive many fewer visitors than before, so any capital improvements they made previously become financial burdens rather than investments.  The airline industry, of course, suffered the biggest hit.  Any industry that depends on air freight -- which is to say, just about all of them -- are suddenly faced with higher than expected costs.  The 9/11 attacks were bound to have those consequences even if there was no reason to expect future attacks.  Given the context of the attacks, however, it seemed almost certain that we would face more attacks in the future.

This does provide some justification for aggressive government action.  It is important to signal that those in charge are going to do everything possible to keep things safe, even if the danger is illusory.  Not because they are particularly concerned about the possibility of a few extra terrorist deaths, but because they need to re-establish the conditions for normal economic calculation.  We have been very fortunate to have suffered few attacks since 9/11, and none on the same scale.  If we had, however, you can be sure that the economy would have suffered as a consequence.

The problem of how to deal with the terrorist threat is complicated, and I would be among the first to say that our government reacted badly in several respects, and continues to operate under faulty assumptions about the best approach.  One thing that is clear to me, however, is that we can't measure the importance of the attacks by the likelihood of a citizen's dying at the hands of terrorists.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Addendum to Critique of Practical Reason

I neglected to mention one central feature of the Critique of Practical Reason that bothers me quite a bit, namely, Kant's apparently boundless faith in the ability of reason to create a moral code. I am a strong believer in reason, and I hardly ever do anything without reflecting on it. However, I have also come to fear reason, because apparently reasonable conclusion can lead to ghastly results, such as eugenics. One could argue, of course, that true reason could never lead to anything so inhumane, but it would be impossible, I'm sure, to prove it with any degree of certainty. The whole field of morals is covered with uncertainty. Perhaps there is a refutation for every logical argument that leads to inhumane behaviour, but what if we can't find that refutation? What if we ourselves come to a morally reprehensible conclusion that appears to us, nevertheless, to be logically airtight? I refuse to be bound by such a conclusion. I think reason helps us do the right thing on many occasions when our emotions would lead us astray; I also think that our emotions can direct us toward moral behaviour when all reason seems to suggest the contrary. Perhaps, living after the 20th century, we have a different perspective on the limitations of reason than Kant did. After all, the atrocities of the French Revolution and the Communist movements of the 20th century were done in the name of reason, in obedience to "science." These were things that he could not have anticipated, and I don't criticize him for failing to see their possibility. Still, I think it is important to call attention to this limitation in his moral philosophy.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Critique of Practical Reason

What is this "categorical imperative" that is associated with Kant? It is, simply, a moral rule that must be followed regardless of circumstances. Kant notes that philosophers and theologians have tended to start with the "summum bonum," or highest good, and derive morality from that: pursuing the summum bonum is good. The problem with that approach is that there is no way to tell what is good in any particular circumstance; it all depends on whether it would benefit the highest good. Kant believes that this undermines true morality. "Thou shalt not kill" should be a universal rule, and not something that you make exceptions for: well, it is Hitler, he will kill a lot of other people if we don't; it is in self-defense; etc. I can't say that Kant would endorse this particular rule, nor any other particular rule, because he remarkably avoids discussion of any specific moral laws in the whole book. Nevertheless, this is clearly the gist of what he is saying. If you have to stop and consider the circumstances before knowing if an action is moral or not, you're not using a true morality that is based on universal rules, but a circumstantial one that is based on whether the outcome of your actions.

 I have to admit that Kant's argument sounds convincing in the abstract. In practice, I can't imagine a rule so universal that I would want applied regardless of circumstances. If someone is trying to kill me or a member of my family, I wouldn't hesitate (morally, anyway) to kill that person in self-defense. I would consider it almost insanely immoral not to use whatever force was at hand to resist. And if killing is not a universal standard, it's hard to think of what else could be. I am reminded of St. Augustine's story (I can't remember which work, I think it was "City of God") of a woman who violates her chastity three times for good ends. They are all, if I recall correctly, related to saving her husband. So even Augustine, who recounts this story favourably, seems to think that rules are not absolute. You could say that there is an absolute rule to follow God, but unless you can distill it into a maxim that can be stated in universal terms, it will not suit Kant's requirements for the categorical imperative.

This book seems largely a follow-on to the "Critique of Pure Reason," where Kant brought up three "antinomies" of pure reason: the freedom of the will, the immortality of the soul, and the existence of God. None of these, he felt, could be resolved satisfactorily by pure reason. Reason tells us that everything has a physical cause, so how can we have free will that initiates actions without a cause in the physical world? I found Hume's answer thoroughly unsatisfying: we don't have free will, but we act as though we do. Unfortunately, I'm not sure Kant's is much better in the end. He basically says that we must have free will because we feel that we do. In some cases he speaks of free will as a "postulate" of practical reason, i.e. we must base our behaviour around this principle even though we can't prove it through reason alone. But in other cases, he talks about the "proof" of free will, and even says that it is an "apodeictic certainty." I don't at all understand how he gets from one point to the other.

Kant then introduces the two antinomies of practical reason. If (as he supposes) we know we must follow moral rules, and we know we can never attain perfection in them, the only way the system makes sense is if we have an eternity to improve -- hence the immortality of the soul. Moreover, the highest good isn't just being moral, it must also include being happy. (He seems to infer this from the fact that everyone wants to be happy and acts to promote his own happiness.) But it would be a coincidence of cosmic magnitude if following moral rules happened to lead to personal happiness. The only way we can be sure of this is if someone is in charge of creation and dictated that morality and happiness would necessarily coincide -- hence the existence of God. I'm probably butchering his logic here, and to be honest I found it extremely difficult to following his reasoning in this part. I can understand how you might insist on going on these assumptions, but, again, Kant treats them as proofs, which doesn't make sense to me. I understand that they are "practical" rather than theoretical proofs, but the difference escapes me.

For a book that is basically abstract -- as I mentioned, he doesn't bring up any specific instances of rules that would apply to the categorical imperative, and he is mainly concerned with proving its necessity and its implications -- the "Critique of Practical Reason" has a surprisingly practical inclination in places. It contains an ongoing thread about how people other than philosophers approach moral issues, and the entire last section is devoted to a sort of pedagogy of morals. Kant believes that people have a developed innate sense of moral rules and that it is only necessary to direct them in the right way of thinking about them. The wrong way would be to emphasize heroic moral acts, particularly those involving self-sacrifice, such as rescuing people from a sinking ship. Such an act would have a moral element, but it would violate the basic principle of self-preservation to no purpose. Also, any public act would entail a degree of recognition that would be at odds with true moral feeling. Much better to emphasize private decisions that have nothing riding on them than the upholding of the moral code.

Kant devotes considerable effort to showing that moral rules followed for any other purpose than the mere fact that they are rules that we know in our reason we should obey would not have the same meaning. This means that doing something to avoid punishment is not really a moral act, so compulsion detracts from morality. Doing anything for our own benefit, whether public recognition, financial reward, or to get into heaven, would be equally "amoral." The only allowed justification is that we know rationally that we should follow the rule. While I follow his reasoning here, I have also become a quite practical person myself and I think the best way to promote good behaviour is to think of it as a personal benefit. If I can see the good things that will possibly derive to me from a moral action, it is much easier for me to perform that action. It might make the action itself less meritorious, but I should get credit for creating that desire in myself by emphasizing the positive side of moral behaviour and downplaying the negative consequences. I doubt Kant would agree with me, but then, what would he think about someone who emphasizes the negative consequences of his own moral decisions in order to increase the value of making the right decision? It seems implicit in rejecting the one that you would have to accept the other, but it seems equally obvious that, if everyone pursued the latter path, we would have a lot less moral action.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Hume in se



My most popular post by a huge margin is on Hume and Popper, although I'm not sure if it gets so many hits because it is insightful or because philosophy professors keep sending their students to it as an example of how not to analyze philosophy.  I finally got around to reading Hume's famous work "An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding" and I was curious whether it would cause me to rethink my other post.  In a word, no, because that post was mostly (I realize now) about Popper.  But I'm still glad I read it.

After slogging through Spinoza and Leibniz, I can't say what a pleasure it was to read a book in the Anglophone tradition, where the author's primary effort is to be understood.  That, and Hume's empiricist outlook, make this book a pleasure to read even where I disagree with it, and that does not include his generally sceptical approach.

Hume tries to show that we can only ever assume causality, never know it directly, which is unobjectionable to me.  We see one event follow another repeatedly, and assume that there is a causal link between them.  We can't "see" the cause, only infer it from observations.  However, I think Hume doesn't consider the nature of an observation sufficiently.  Science (not to mention practical life in general) is based on the assumption that nature follows laws consistently.  If it doesn't, we have no basis for science at all, not to mention that just staying alive would be quite a challenge.  So in that sense, we are reasonable to assume that the same event will be followed by the same consequences every time.

The trick is, what constitutes an event?  If we see one billiard ball striking another (as Hume likes to give as an example), what we're really seeing is one composite material striking another.  It may appear that the materials are the same from one instance to the next, and this may be a reasonable assumption, but someone could easily trick us by making some other material look like a billiard ball, or change a ball in some way, such as hollowing it out.  This is sometimes practiced in baseball, where batters may put cork inside their bats or pitchers may doctor balls.

But we know that these are not really the same things, and even if it appears the same to us, we are not surprised to find that they have been changed if their behaviour is different.  Similarly with bread (another of Hume's examples), which is even more heterogeneous, and in fact it would be reasonable to say that no two loaves of bread are quite the same.  What looks and smells like bread may have different proportions of various ingredients, including some that may not be nutritive and may even be harmful.

What if we could break matter down into its smallest units, i.e. atoms?  Then we would truly be surprised if the atoms behaved differently from one time to the next, because they are supposed to be identical one to another.  Molecules as well, when composed of the same atoms, are also supposed to be the same.  And this holds true even though atoms can actually be broken down further; a hydrogen atom with one proton and one electron is identical in behaviour to any other hydrogen atom, at least at a super-atomic level.  Subatomic particles are also identical with others of the same type, but at that level, natural laws, not to mention Newtonian mechanics, break down, and we cannot say that an electron will behave the same as any other electron it terms of its motion.

The trick to all this is that observations are, by their nature, empircal and uncertain.  We can never be sure that we have witnessed a truly "atomic" event (defined as one consisting entirely of homogeneous units that always behave consistently), but we can gain a degree of certainty (i.e., a strong probability) by repeated observations.  This is the thing that Hume considers so odd:  that we don't consider a single event to be determinative, even though it contains all the information that we get from multiple events that we do consider evidence, or even proof, of causality.  He is correct up to a point, but he overlooks the fact that it is the very repetition that allows us some certainty that we have been witnessing the same thing repeatedly and not a congeries of different things.

This doesn't disprove Hume's fundamental point, of course, that we cannot see causation and must infer it.  The thing that surprised me was that Hume seems to accept causality as fundamentally valid in spite of his sceptical analysis.  Later in the book, he takes causality as certain, even though we cannot know it a priori.  It is so certain to him that it is evidence that we do not have freedom of the will:  every material event has a material cause, therefore we cannot possibly have free will, which implies a non-material cause.  I feel that his argument on this point is much weaker than that on epistemology.  Surely, within a materialist framework, free will has no place.  On the other hand, Hume excuses the potentially negative consequences of his determinism by saying that it doesn't matter because we act as though we have free will.  We can't excuse people for their actions, nor blame God for determining everything.  He doesn't have much of an argument for this contradictory conclusion and really just seems to want to avoid the logical conclusions of the things he has just asserted with such confidence.

I should add that, apart from his slippery response to material determinism, Hume's analysis of human behaviour seems much more convincing in general than Spinoza's.  Hume tries to analyze actual behaviour, not construct an entirely consistent philosophical system from axia.  This allows him to make some observations that, while not provable, are nonetheless much more useful than anything Spinoza says.

Hume is the obvious forerunner to idealism in more than just his approach to causality:  he, like Kant and his successors, treats phenomena as fundamentally different from noumena.  This isn't really a contribution to philosophy, since Hume states it as the universal opinion, but obviously Hume's arguments put these ideas front and center.  What I don't understand about him and any of the idealists who build on him is why they  think phenomena bear no relation to the noumena from which they are derived.  True, our perception of "red" or "hot" may not correspond in an objective sense to what an object is (another Humian example), but it does correspond directly to something:  to reflected wavelengths of light, to energy in surface molecules, etc.  I may not be able to describe the sensation of heat to someone who has never felt it, but I could tell them something concrete and material about a hot object that would remain true for all people regardless of whether they actually felt heat.

Hume's most interesting observation, from my perspective, is that all of our reasoning is by analogy.  I have frequently thought this and have wanted to build it out into a more general theory of epistemology and psychology.  If we see one billiard ball strike another, and then we see one croquet ball strike another, we are not surprised that the result is similar because they are analogous objects.  Similarly if we see, for example, inflated round balls (soccer or basketballs, e.g.) strike each other, although the analogy isn't as complete in that case.  Scientists take this analogy with them when they consider the behaviour of atoms in a gas or a liquid, even though it may not be precisely the same.  And when subatomic particles seem to travel multiple paths at the same time, we have no analogy for it, and it just seems wrong.  We know it models their behaviour in a mathematical sense, but we can't really conceive it in conjunction with our general understanding of the world.

This becomes even more important, and perhaps less appreciated, in interpersonal relationships.  What happens when we face a new situation in a relation with another person?  I don't know about other people, but I tend to think of similar cases in literature that I have read or in movies that I have seen.  Sometimes it seems too close to fiction to be real, but the important part is that my mind is modeling the real events based on analogous fictional ones.  Even though I know that fiction is not real, I may not have any real-world examples to go on, or they may seem a weaker fit.  I believe Joseph Campbell used similar logic to argue for the importance of myths in human society:  even if we don't believe them, they still shape the way we think.  (I disagree with Campbell that it doesn't matter if we don't believe them, but I agree that they shape us in any case.)

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Offensive mascots again

The mascot question has become much more acute since I wrote about it here 7 years ago (Offensive mascots, 11/27/09).  The NCAA has imposed penalties on teams with Native American nicknames and mascots, and the pressure on the Washington Redskins has become much greater, including many networks that will not say the name on air.

A new poll highlights the stupidity of the whole effort:  Native Americans overwhelmingly don't care.  They either aren't offended or actually like the names.  Which should be obvious, since team names are taken not to mock a culture, but to hold it up as a symbol of pride.

I doubt this will shame any of the people campaigning against Native American names into minding their own business, because they do not have a normal sense of shame when it comes to their touchstone issues.  You're either right, or you're a racist/fascist/sexist.  I don't know what they would say to Native Americans in this case; perhaps they would argue that they just don't understand.  In other words, progressives know better what to be sensitive about than the people do themselves.

When this kind of condescension comes from conservatives, progressives call it racism.



Immigration: My View

Having devoted the last two posts to the issue of illegal immigration, I thought I should offer my opinion lest people think the arguments in those posts cover my views exactly.  I have mixed feelings about immigration, which seems to make me unique in the country, everyone else being strongly for or against it.

First, I am convinced that illegal immigration is bad and should be punished.  It makes a mockery of a country to have its laws flouted with impunity.  If people think the law is bad, they should repeal it.  As long as it is on the books, and that includes up to the present, it should be enforced.

But is it a good law, or not?  In principle, I see the value to increasing population.  This is the classic measure of a successful state, and perhaps no country in history has been more successful at attracting voluntary immigrants than the U.S.  (Ironic, I suppose, since the U.S. also had one of the larger populations of involuntary immigrants, but that's another matter.)  It would be naive to think that all immigration is a net benefit, however; so, setting aside the moral question for a moment, let's consider the advantages and disadvantages of immigration.

Most people are chiefly concerned with the economics of immigration.  Libertarians (and liberals, when they're not talking about overpopulation) like to point out that people contribute to growth.  The economy is not a static pie, to be divided up among a larger or smaller population, but a dynamic value that typically grows with the number of people participating in it.  Immigrants bring labour, skills, and ideas that can help an economy grow faster than it would otherwise.  There is a particularly sharp debate about the need of immigrants with particular technical skills that are not found in sufficient numbers in the United States already.

On one hand, the law of supply and demand tells that, in the short run, the price of labour is bound to decrease if the supply is increased.  This affects people on all parts of the spectrum, from low-skill workers to engineers and scientists.

On the other hand, in the long run labour is paid based on the value it contributes, so demand will expand or contract to accommodate whatever supply is available.  That isn't necessarily good:  we don't want the high-skilled labour to be scarce and therefore earn extremely high wages if it means that companies have to forego creating skilled jobs because they can't afford to hire people at going rates.  But this, too, is relative.  In almost any economy, there would be more high-skilled jobs if they paid less.  It's impossible to say precisely where we want to draw the line, even if we had the power to draw it anywhere we wanted to.  One thing I think we can agree on is that a massive influx of labouring adults would cause short-term dislocations, which may not be fair to people already living here.  The country as a whole would probably not face such an influx, but for the states closest to the border, such as Texas and California, it is a real concern.

Then there is the moral question of whether we have any right to keep out imimigrants who want to make a better life for themselves.  I hold the traditional view that every sovereign state has such a right.  I also believe it is reasonable to show compassion to other people who are suffering, which is why the U.S. has a provision for accepting refugees from particularly troubled areas.

The vast bulk of our illegal immigration does not qualify for refugee status.  If you think they should, because they are from a poor country, consider that Mexico is in the top half of GDP per capita in the world.  It falls behind Turkey and Malaysia, but ahead of Belarus, Bulgaria, China, and a long list of other countries.  Do we have a moral obligation to accept all immigrants from countries poorer than the U.S.?  Do we care whether the individuals themselves are poor, and, if so, are we going to screen them to determine their wealth first?  Any amount of screening -- whether for wealth, country of origin, communicable diseases, or terrorist plans -- imply that we have some right to control who comes into our country, and consequently that anyone who comes here except through the established paths is doing wrong.

We should consider a third concern about immigration, alongside economic and moral; what we might call social concerns, or whether America will remain America in the face of immigration.  This can range from overtly racist fears that anglo-whites will become a minority, to concerns about balkanization of American politics, to more abstract anxieties about the nature of American society.  Balkanization is a more legitimate concern now than ever before as we have become increasingly judged not as individuals but as members of a particular group, whether sex, race, or national origin.  The same gerrymandering that led to the creation of majority black districts in Congress could be extended to other relatively homogeneous groups, and that could lead to calls for special treatment.  The fear is that we could end up something like Lebanon, whose top government posts are each reserved for a member of a different religion, and where numerous officially recognized religious groups have their own courts for many purposes.

Obviously, we are a long way from becoming Lebanon, but a lot of people talk as though that kind of "diversity" would help our country.  I'm all in favour of diversity of individuals, but having our legal system treat people as anything other than individuals is a formula for disaster.  This is a structural concern that has to do with how immigrants integrate into society, and it is something that can be crudely observed.  Most second-generation Americans that I have met seem at least as comfortable in our culture as I do, but there are places where immigrants live in more-or-less isolated islands and have interaction chiefly with each other.  Then again, the same thing could have been said about New York City for much of the 19th century, so it is not necessarily a problem if that happens.  The one thing I would insist upon is that all official business of the national government be conducted in English.  I don't care what people speak to each other, and I don't care if states want to accept official documents in other languages; I don't even mind providing all reasonable assistance to help non-English speakers use the government to the full extent of their rights.  I do think, however, that having a common language is perhaps the most fundamental element of a unified society, and, since we already have one, it would be rash to throw this away to accommodate people who don't want to learn it.

I admit that I'm not too worried about structural balkanization in America.  It's a big country, and modern media is a powerful solvent helping to integrate everyone into a single culture.  What I fear more than anything else is the abstract issue of the retention of American values, by which I mean things like equality before the law, freedom of speech and the press, and representative government.  Again, this is not in any immediate danger; peaceful immigration rarely poses such a danger.  However, I think it remarkably shortsighted of some proponents of free immigration to assume that America will always continue being "America" in the sense that they have come to know it.

And yes, I know that American values have changed over 200+ years, and that's fine.  I'm also aware that every society absorbs two kinds of immigrants each generation:  one, the smaller group, from outside its borders; the other, larger group in the form of new people born there that have to be integrated into the prevailing culture.  (I read this originally in Newt Gingrich's "To Renew America," but I can't remember if it was original with him or came from somewhere else.  It is a very powerful image, in any case.)  So a country can change radically in a space of 25 or 50 years without a single foreigner coming to settle there.

Still, I think foreign immigration is a much more powerful means of introducing new and different ideas, because the people who come here have grown up in a different society -- often a radically different society -- and so have different assumptions about the way it should work.  Most immigrants I have met have been as American as I am in their ideas, and I think that tends to be the case for legal immigration, although I can't prove it.  But certainly some people come here and don't share the same assumptions.  Some think homosexuals should be put to death.  Some think democracy is a bad form of government.  Some think that we should base our laws around an entirely different principle from individual responsibility; for example, those who believe in sharia law.  That may seem a distant threat now, and I grant that it is, but I don't think one should ignore threats just because they take a century to manifest themselves.  If you think it's too far off to worry about, just ask yourself what kind of society you want your grandchildren or great-grandchildren to be living under.

I offer these ideas not as a policy prescription, but as food for thought about immigration in general.  I can't think of any policy that could guarantee that the United States will not become like Afghanistan in a century or two, but I do think voters should consider how immigration is affecting society when they think about immigration policy.  The one specific policy that I would recommend is one we already have, the American system (which I assume is similar in other countries) of making immigrants learn about our government before becoming a citizen.  They may not agree with it; they may even lie when they swear the oath of allegiance; but at least they go through the process, learn about it, and are around others who support it.  I have no problem allowing in immigrants who have some different values, but there is no reason to allow in anyone who hates our society.  I wouldn't check too closely at this point, but if America came to be populated by a significant minority of people who wanted to change the country in a radical way, I would certainly want to examine immigrants more closely before I exacerbated a potential problem.