… but lay off my Starbucks, George!

In his latest column, George Will makes similar points to ones I made in my last post, about our national orgy of conspicuous consumption. (And thank you, Thorstein Veblen! I’ve always thought that was a great term — and not just because of the alliteration.)

He concludes it thusly:

In any American city large enough to sustain a social ecosystem of snobbery, there is a magazine to guide fastidious consumers to “the five best craft breweries” or “the five best artisanal cheese shops.” Heaven forfend that anyone should have to settle for the sixth-best. For discerning tipplers, there are artisanal ice cubes. In San Francisco, The Mill, a cafe and bakery, offers artisanal toast for $4 a slice. It is to die for, say the cognoscenti.

Where will the positional economy end? It won’t. Stanford University professor Francis Fukuyama notes that it is a peculiarity of human beings that they desire some things “not for themselves but because they are desired by other human beings.” Hamsters have more sense. This characteristic of our species — the quest for recognition by distinguishing oneself from others — provides limitless marketing possibilities because for many wealthy people, “the chief enjoyment of riches consists in the parade of riches.” So wrote Adam Smith in “The Wealth of Nations,” published in the resonant year of 1776.

And I’m down with all that. My one beef is that the thing that got him mounted on what Bryan would term his high horse was… my beloved Starbucks.

He was indignant that Starbucks is going to have these special, exclusive places called “roasteries” to attract the true poseurs among caffeineheads.starbucks_corporation_logo_2011-svg

Yeah, OK, those places do sound a bit pretentious. But a lot of people think regular ol’ Starbucks is pretentious and conspicuous, in the Veblen sense. And you know what? It isn’t. It’s just great coffee, and it’s consistent — I know that if I walk into a Starbucks in Columbia or Charleston or Memphis or New York or even London or Bangkok, I will get the same great cup of coffee.

Also — the really snooty people claim allegiance to their local, nonchain coffeehouses, and I suppose they’re all right in their way. But the service is better at Starbucks, and so is the coffee, IMHO. And I know I’ll get that same experience wherever I go.

As for the cost, people go on about $6 cups of coffee. Yeah, I suppose some of those slow, indecisive people I sometimes get behind in line are paying that and more for their over-elaborate soda-fountain drinks. But a cup of coffee — which is what I buy there, just black coffee — costs about 2 bucks. Which is about the same I pay for a large cup at Lizard’s Thicket. And a refill’s only about 50 cents.

So there…

Enough with the materialism orgy, already!

materialism-orgy

Maybe it’s envy. Maybe it’s just that I don’t have money to buy expensive gifts. Or maybe it’s that I wouldn’t buy these kinds of gifts even if I could. I’d give people something more practical. Or burn the money.

But it seems to me that each Christmas, the materialism orgy gets several degrees more offensive.

Get a load of the guy in the screengrab above. Excuse my imagery, but he looks for all the world like he’s about to have an orgasm from sticking his nose into a wineglass.

This is from a pop-up video act that forced itself upon me when I tried to read a story on the New York Times website. The video went on and on like this, in slow motion. With “Ode to Joy” as the background music, just in case the images didn’t lay it on thick enough. It all just seemed to embody perfectly everything that bugs me about the ads for jewelry and perfume and watches that cost more than my house (and what’s more pointlessly ostentatious than an expensive watch, in an age when we all carry phones that keep perfect time?) with which we are inundated this time of year.

Part of this is that I’m kind of jaded about foodie stuff. (And may that’s because I have such a limited diet, and tend to think good food is anything I can use for fuel that won’t kill me.) People make WAY too big a deal over how good a bite of food or a sip of a drink — or in this case, the smell of a drink — can be. Face it — if there’s a cake recipe that you think is better than sex, you’ve got a problem.

But there’s much, much more than that going on here. A lot of effort was put into making this guy look posh, upper-class, refined, better than you, and something to aspire to — if only you can afford and appreciate this product, you, too will be a superior being. It’s so extreme, it’s laughable. Like a Thurston Howell caricature of wealth and snobbery, only with better production values. The makers of the ad were going for the same effect I was going for in my own cheesy way with this selfie, except they weren’t kidding.

This is actually expected to appeal to… somebody. Donald Trump, maybe. He probably thinks it’s classy.

This holiday started with celebrating a poor child born in a stable. And now this.

Do y’all know what I’m saying here? If so, what’s the materialism-deifying ad you hate the most? Share, so we can heap scorn upon it.

Your Virtual Front Page for Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Merrill

Merrill

Hey, we have some actual news on the local front today:

  1. State Rep. Merrill accused of misconduct in office, violating state ethics law — The other shoe has finally dropped in the investigation arising from the Bobby Harrell mess. Or perhaps I should say another shoe, since Pascoe says the probe continues, and we have no idea how many feet this critter has.
  2. Fed Lifts Rates, Signals More Increases Next Year — A story like this is like Christmas for the WSJ; they gave it the equivalent of a six-column headline.
  3. Aleppo battle: Raids on Syria city ‘likely a war crime’ UN says — Thank Goodness for British media, else we’d forget the rest of the world is out there. This is leading the BBC.
  4. SC Gov. Haley fires Richland Recreation Commission chair, vice chair — Better yet, she let one of the good-guy members stay on instead of firing everybody. So good one, governor.
  5. Democratic House Candidates Were Also Targets — Part two of the NYT’s series on what the Russians did to undermine our electoral process.
  6. Legendary jewel thief Doris Payne, age 86, caught stealing diamond necklace — A change of pace, for the mix. Maybe she should take a page from Cary Grant’s character in “To Catch a Thief” and retire. Don’t you think she’s earned it at this point?
Grant's character had the good sense to retire to a place with a view.

Grant’s character had the good sense to retire to a place with a view.

If you were to spoof a WSJ headline, it would look like this

There are two things I love, and they are opposites — those that delight by running counter to expectations and thereby undermining oversimple assumptions, and those that run SO true to stereotype that they reassure the harried mind that there is order in the world and it can be understood.

So I particularly enjoyed this, from The Wall Street Journal this morning:

If you were trying to lampoon the WSJ‘s editorial proclivities, you couldn’t have come up with a better headline. You take the Journal‘s disdain for anything that smack of socialism, and you add a touch of Grinch: Not only do those socialists dishonor the holy marketplace, but they want to take the kids’ toys, too!

It’s so perfect, it’s satire.

But here’s what really makes it special — the whipped cream and cherry on top: The Journal is right! The words accurately describe something that’s happening! None of it’s made up. The Venezuelan government is actually confiscating (some) toys before they can get to the kids.

So I enjoyed that — while at the same time feeling bad for the kids, and for their parents, trying to cope with 470 percent inflation. Which is way worse than not being able to find a certain brand of toy, which, let’s face it, is to some extent more of a First World Problem.

I could have done without the standard libertarian reference to “other people’s money” at the end, but that will probably delight Doug, so… something for everybody. Merry Christmas, Doug!

Open Thread for Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Some quick topics:

  1. How Moscow Aimed a Perfect Weapon at the U.S. Election — Wow. This currently leads the NYT site. It takes the story well beyond where The Washington Post had advanced it. This is a huge accusation — and an assertion that not only did Russia attempt to sabotage our election, they got it done. Heads up — Trump is really not going to like this one.
  2. Deals With Putin Helped Fuel the Rise of Tillerson at Exxon — And this one, somewhat less lurid but still serious food for thought, is leading the WSJ. No wonder Marco Rubio says he has “serious concerns” about the SecState nominee.
  3. 2 doctors assaulted at maximum-security S.C. prison, official says — Another security failure in our underfunded prison system.
  4. Florida court says iPhone passcode must be revealed — The guy’s accused of being a voyeur. Not exactly the terrorism case we discussed previously, but interesting nonetheless.
  5. Wave taller than a six-storey building sets ‘remarkable’ world record — Looks like I gave up surfing about four decades too soon. Thank God…
1200px-mavericks_surf_contest_2010a

File photo from Wikimedia Commons. I couldn’t figure out how I was supposed to attribute it, so I’m linking you to the source…

Let’s clarify the Gov Lite succession, but I wouldn’t blame Leatherman for trying to dodge it

Tom Davis

Tom Davis

I’ve been getting Tom Davis‘ highly involved emails about the uncertainty surrounding what will happen with the lieutenant governor position if Henry McMaster becomes governor, but I confess I found them a bit dense and confusing, and didn’t read them all the way through.

So I didn’t fully focus on what he was on about until today, when Cindi Scoppe wrote about the issue, and ran excerpts from Tom’s recent speech on the matter.

Really, really simplifying it, Tom has two issues:

  1. He wants the Supreme Court to clarify a mess created by the General Assembly. Voters wisely decided several years back that we would, starting in 2018, elect the governor and lieutenant governor together. In the past, if there’s a vacancy in the lt. gov. position between elections, the president pro tem of the Senate becomes Gov Lite. After 2018, if there’s a sudden vacancy, the governor will be empowered to appoint a new lt. Unfortunately, the language lawmakers passed to go into the state constitution after the vote failed to specify that the governor wouldn’t have that appointive power until 2018, leaving it open to the interpretation that the governor has that power now.
  2. He wants Hugh Leatherman, who as Senate president pro tem is arguably the most powerful person in state government, to take the gov lite job, which is worth even less than the bucket of warm spit at which vice presidency is valued. Leatherman, quite understandably, isn’t even slightly interested in giving up the Senate post he’s spent his political career rising to.

I’m with Sen. Davis on the first point — the succession needs to be cleared up. Trying to follow what the law exactly is at this moment sort of makes my head hurt.

Leatherman

Leatherman

I’m not with him on the second. If the succession is done the old way, and Leatherman resigns temporarily from the pro tem position so someone else can have it long enough to become lieutenant governor, and he can then summon the votes to become pro tem again, well, more power to him. (Too much power, Sen. Shane Massey would say, but I say it’s up to the senators to decide whether they want their Finance chairman to be pro tem.)

Yeah, if the Court says it still works that way, the pro tem must become gov lite. But that doesn’t specify which pro tem. As we saw just a couple of years back, even if one just became pro tem five minutes ago, you’re the one who becomes lt. gov.

That time around, John Courson didn’t have the votes to quit for a few minutes and be re-elected. From what I hear, Leatherman does.

Yes, technically — if the Court rules that way — being pro tem entails becoming lt. gov. if there’s a vacancy. And Tom Davis seems to believe — as did Glenn McConnell — that this is some sort of sacred covenant that is somehow central to being pro tem. That seems a bit … off to me. I honor McConnell for following his conscience on that, but I’m just not entirely sure that he had the deep, moral obligation that he thought he did.

The voters of Florence County elected Leatherman to be their senator, not to be the lieutenant governor. His Senate colleagues chose him to be their leader, not to be lieutenant governor.

That the job of pro tem contains this condition of suddenly being demoted from the sublime heights to the lower depths of state officialdom, due to circumstances beyond one’s control, seems like a goofy, arbitrary penalty in a particularly capricious game. It’s like landing on Community Chest in Monopoly and getting a card that sends you straight to jail. It’s like an American-Ninja-style reality TV show in which, due to no failing on your part, a trap door suddenly opens under you and you fall into a vat of ice water. It does NOT seem like a provision drafted because it’s a sensible way to run a government. (I think succession laws make eminent sense — when it’s a matter of a promotion, like vice president to president. But this sudden penalty provision seems goofy.)

To respond to something Cindi suggested in her column: It would not be at all OK if the law were found to require the pro tem to become gov lite and Leatherman simply said, “I refuse.” That would be inexcusable, and then we’d have a real crisis on our hands. But if he’s willing to step down and run for the office again after some other poor soul becomes lieutenant governor, I say let him take his chances.

As one of his fellow senators, Tom Davis will then have not only the right, but the duty (since that’s what his conscience dictates) to vote against him, and try to persuade his colleagues to do likewise.

I don’t think this is an open-and-shut thing, and I can think of good reasons to take Tom’s position. But he doesn’t quite persuade me. Maybe some of you can….

Graham wants Tillerson to answer questions on Russia

Tillerson and Putin

Tillerson and Putin

Lindsey Graham has had politely positive things to say about most of Trump’s Cabinet picks so far. But he wants some answers from Rex Tillerson about his buddy-buddy relationship with Putin:

Graham on Tillerson Nomination to Serve as Secretary of State

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) today made this statement on Rex Tillerson, being nominated to serve as Secretary of State.

“Mr. Tillerson is a talented businessman with a great deal of international business experience.

“I look forward to meeting Mr. Tillerson and discussing his world view – especially his views of the US-Russian relationship. Based upon his extensive business dealings with the Putin government and his previous opposition of efforts to impose sanctions on the Russian government, there are many questions which must be answered.  I expect the US-Russian relationship to be front and center in his confirmation process.”

####

Yeah, age discrimination is real, but this is ridiculous

boy-633014_960_720

One of those job-hunting websites I signed up for years ago continues to send me advice. I found this rather mind-blowing:

The Y2K Bug… on your resume

Good Monday morning, Brad,

You may remember this global panic around the turn of the century. The “Y2K bug” was an obscure, but potentially disruptive, computer glitch that we spent $400 billion fixing. Midnight on New Year’s Eve 1999 came and went without the dawn of the apocalypse, however, and Y2K passed into history.

But now the Year 2000 Problem rises again and this time it’s on your resume: those dates and entries that indicate you were already out of college and in the workforce before the new millennium arrived give too much latitude to age discrimination.

At Ladders, we’ve got a simple solution for those of you with two or more decades of experience:

Don’t list any dates on your resume before the Year 2000.

Age discrimination is rampant in American work culture.

It’s unfair, unkind, and uncharitable of the world to treat you that way, but it’s also undeniably true that the bias against ‘the olds’ is creeping its way further and further down into the demographics. It won’t be long before the oldest Millennials are considered washed up by their youngest peers.

I’ve written at some length before on how Age Discrimination is Mindset Discrimination, and the steps you can take to thrive in job interviews because of your experience rather than fear them because of your age.

But to master the interview you’ve got to get the interview. And to get the interview, you’ve got to remove anything from the process that can trip you up. …

Say what? Nothing before 2000, which was like, what, five minutes ago?

Yo, Mr. White, I’m trying to get a job here, so I can make mad stacks — I’m not applying to get into preschool!…

Is this where the GOP Congress stands up to Trump?

Will their checks and balances be enough?

Will their checks and balances be enough?

Remember all those assurances that, thanks to our system of checks and balances, Trump wouldn’t be able to harm the country all that much?

Well, as much confidence as I place in Hamilton, Madison et al., I’ve thought that was too phlegmatic by half — a modern president can do a great deal of harm, even unto the destruction of the planet, before Congress can get its thumb out of its, um, ear.

And, over the weekend, some observers — including The Washington Post‘s duty conservative, Jennifer Rubin — were beginning to wonder whether the GOP Congress would ever develop the guts or inclination even to try to contain him.

As it happens, there were encouraging signs yesterday and this morning.

First, my two fave senators, Graham and McCain, stood up to both Trump and Putin:

Two Senate Republicans joined demands for a bipartisan probe into Russia’s suspected election interference allegedly designed to bolster Donald Trump as questions continue to mount about the president-elect’s expected decision to nominate a secretary of state candidate with close ties to Russia.

Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) — the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee — joined calls by incoming Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and Armed Services ranking Democrat Jack Reed (R.I.) for a thorough, bipartisan investigation of Russian influence in the U.S. elections. Their statement came two days after The Washington Post reported the CIA’s private conclusion that Russia’s activities were intended to tip the scales to help Trump.

“Recent reports of Russian interference in our election should alarm every American,” the four senators said in a statement on Sunday morning. “Democrats and Republicans must work together, and across the jurisdictional lines of the Congress, to examine these recent incidents thoroughly and devise comprehensive solutions to deter and defend against further cyberattacks.”…

Of course, the headline on that story noted that the GOP leadership remained “mum” on that point.

I’m happy to note that Sen. McConnell has now been heard from:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Monday strongly condemned any foreign interference with U.S. elections and announced that the Senate intelligence panel will investigate Russia’s suspected election interference.

“The Russian are not our friends,” McConnell told reporters at a scheduled year-end news conference….

This is encouraging. It doesn’t make me think things are hunky-dory, but it’s encouraging…

Apparently, intelligence would cramp Trump’s style

If only George Smiley were available to brief him. And if only he'd listen...

If only George Smiley were available to brief him. And if only he’d listen…

Just to start off the week, which is worse?

  1. Trump deciding he doesn’t need the daily intelligence briefing — even though, you know, there’s never been a president-elect in our history more painfully in need of one. I have to admit I cringed right after the election when it was reported he would start getting these — the very idea of the least discreet man in America being briefed on the nation’s secrets — but Trump not getting such briefings is actually much more disturbing. I mean, if he gets enough of them, maybe, just maybe, he’d start to get a clue. And perhaps that’s why he doesn’t want to get them. Having a clue would cramp his style.
  2. Trump waving off the assessment by intelligence professionals that the Russians tried to hack our election to benefit him.

My immediate reaction, of course, is that absurdity No. 2 is the worse one, because what could be more dangerous than a president who says “No, they didn’t” to evidence that Russia was trying to do such a thing to this country, striking at the very core of our democracy? And of course, we know why he dismisses it: It suggests he is less awesome than he thinks he is, and that he needed help to win. Which makes his stubborn refusal to accept facts even more alarming — because what has concerned us most about Trump, if not his penchant for placing the stroking of his own fragile, unstable ego ahead of every other consideration?cia

If only someone could tell him the bad news in a good way — pointing out that no one is saying the Russians won the election for him (at least I haven’t heard that yet); we’re just saying that Putin may have committed an extraordinarily hostile act against this country, just by trying. Of course, even then, we’d run up against a key goal of the incoming Trump administration, which is to favor Russia — something of which we got another reminder via the nomination of the ExxonMobil guy for secretary of state. And once again, Trump is utterly uninterested in, and hostile to, any information that might contradict what he wants to believe. (He’s like his supporters in that regard, the ones who choose their own alternative-reality “news” sources.)

(A digression: On the radio this morning, someone was wondering why, if you want to cozy up to one superpower wannabe and tick off another, why choose moribund Russia to be your pal instead of the dynamic, growing China? Good question.)

But the more I think about it, the more I think absurdity No. 1 may be the bigger problem.

If I were president, or president-elect, I would consider the intelligence briefing the most important part of my day, most days. My temptation would be to let it take up more of my day, rather than less. On the days that the briefing was boring — just same-old, same-old — I would count my blessings. The worst briefings would tend to be the extremely interesting ones.

Because I have a better grasp of international affairs than Trump does (here we go — comments are on the way telling me he’s smarter than I am because he has more money — but this is one thing where I’m pretty confident, because a guy doesn’t need to know much about foreign policy to know more than Trump), I know how much I don’t know, and I would want to do everything I could to know more.

And as I said, our country has never had an incoming leader who needed these briefings more than this guy. If he had these steady, daily tutorials, he may even begin to develop something we might loosely term perspective.

But he doesn’t want that. He thinks he knows everything, when he actually knows less than Jon Snow — if he knew nothing, he’d be better off than he is “knowing” all the things he “knows” that aren’t true.

Bottom line — while within days I fear we’ll hear something worse and this will be toppled from it’s place of honor, these developments over the weekend I think are the most disturbing signs we’ve seen since the election of just how bad this is going to be…

Open Thread for Friday, December 9, 2016

Some possibilities:

  1. Obama orders review of Russian hacking during elections — Well, I don’t know how much they had to do with it, but their guy did win, so…
  2. Russian state doped more than 1,000 athletes and corrupted London 2012 — I think maybe a certain Eurasian country needs to get an “Unsatisfactory” grade for deportment for this quarter-century.
  3. Jurors, families hear Roof’s voice as taped confession is played in court — I’m just glad I’m not on that jury, and forced to see and hear all this horror.
  4. U.S. Kids Far Less Likely To Out-Earn Their Parents, As Inequality Grows — I’m not a bit surprised at this, are you? But I don’t see it as an inequality thing as much as I do the fact that we just don’t have the broad growth that we need. Oh, but wait: Trump stopped from Carrier jobs from going to Mexico, so it’s all cool…
  5. Goldman Sachs President Eyed for Economic Post — Refresh my memory: Didn’t this populist madness that produced Trump sort of get started with everybody hating Goldman Sachs? Or am I confused?
  6. Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent to Step Down Next Year — The company is having troubles. They should ask Trump to help! First thing he’d probably say would be, “You shouldn’t have hired a guy named ‘Muhtar’.”

b0b5baeaec6422bc8f4604a276635cdc

John Glenn always gave his country 110 percent

astronaut_john_glenn_in_a_state_of_weightlessness_during_friendship_-_gpn-2002-000075

See how I didn’t use, “Godspeed, John Glenn?” I wanted to, but I figured everyone else would…

John Glenn was one of my heroes, but that says nothing special about me, except that I was a kid when the Mercury Seven — of which he was the most illustrious, the most conspicuous — were wowing the nation with their exploits. I remember being herded into the auditorium with the rest of my 3rd-grade class to watch him orbit the Earth, as it happened, on a medium-sized black-and-white TV that had been wheeled in for the occasion.800px-colonel_john_glenn_official_photo

Later, The Right Stuff made me admire him all the more, even though Wolfe made it clear how low the astronauts were on the Test Pilot Pyramid (“A monkey’s gonna make the first flight!”). When he ran for president in 1984, he was the guy I wanted to see take it all. I couldn’t believe he did no better than he did; I chalked it up to a decline in the national character.

An anecdote that illustrates Glenn as an exemplar of old-fashioned virtues: In the book, Tom Wolfe really played up Glenn’s status as the most gung-ho, straight-shooting, hard-working, unapologetic advocate of duty and clean living in the astronaut corps. One small example of how meticulously conscientious he was: Whenever he went on a goodwill tour of one of the factories that were building the components of the Mercury rockets and capsules, within days he would send hand-written thank-you notes to everybody he had met at the plant.

I never met Glenn myself, but early in 1984, his daughter made a visit to Jackson, Tenn., where I was the news editor of the local paper. She came by the paper and met with us, advocating for her dad, and before she left, I put on another hat and asked her whether there was any chance of getting John himself to come speak at the banquet of Leadership Jackson, of which I was the rising president.

In the mail a few days later, I received a card from her in which she went on at length about her efforts to follow up on my request.

So, in addition to being our foremost Single-Combat Warrior Challenging the Godless Commies for Dominance of the Heavens, he was a pretty-good Dad as well, passing on his own relentless habits of following through, of being dutiful even in small things.

OK, I’m going to say it: Godspeed, John Glenn

The bad news: Our $206 Trillion Fiscal Gap

Laurence Kotlikoff, Joseph Von Nessen and Doug Woodward.

Laurence Kotlikoff, Joseph Von Nessen and Doug Woodward.

There was good news and bad news today at USC’s 36th Annual Economic Conference.

To be more specific, there was mildly, moderately good news, and really Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad news.

I’ll start with the good, which is on the local level. USC economists Doug Woodward and Joseph Von Nessen said that while growth has sort of leveled off in South Carolina, we’re in for a fairly good 2017. Advanced manufacturing remains strong, and things are going really well in construction — particularly along the coast — and retail. Merchants should have a good Christmas. If there’s a concern, it’s that employers are now having trouble finding qualified employees, particularly ones who are up to the challenges of automation — humans who can work with robots, basically.

On the other hand, we’re basically doomed.

That’s the message I got from the conference’s keynote speaker, Laurence Kotlikoff of Boston University, who started out noting that few Americans seem to have a clue what a fiscal hole we’re really in. Political leaders don’t speak of it, he said, pausing to complain about the “content-free election season” we just experienced. (Of course, you’d expect him to be dissatisfied with that, since he actually ran for president — unsuccessfully, he added dryly.) Oh, sure, they might speak of the $20 trillion national debt — which he noted isn’t really that, since the Fed has bought back $5 or 6 trillion of it — but they ignore the bigger problem.

That’s the true Fiscal Gap, as he calls it, which includes the liabilities that have been kept off the books. You know, Social Security, Medicare and the like — liabilities that aren’t acknowledged in the federal budget, but which are obligations every bit as binding as if the future recipients held Treasury bonds.

That adds up to $206 trillion.

There’s more bad news.

If we think in terms of what it would take for the nation to deal with that liability, our government is currently 53 percent underfinanced. That means that to meet these obligations, we’d have to have 53 percent across-the-board tax increases.

It gets worse.

If we don’t raise taxes by 53 percent now (or make drastic cuts to current and future spending that might somewhat reduce that need), then they’ll have to be raised a lot more on our children and grandchildren.

Dr. Kotlikoff has been raising the alarm about this for years. Here’s an oped piece he wrote for The New York Times in 2014. As he concluded that piece:

What we confront is not just an economics problem. It’s a moral issue. Will we continue to hide most of the bills we are bequeathing our children? Or will we, at long last, systematically measure all the bills and set about reducing them?

For now, we blithely sail on. But prospects aren’t good. None of the three economists, who spoke at a press conference before the event, had anything good to say about incoming political leadership on the national level. In fact, quite a bit of concern was expressed about 3 a.m. Tweets, any one of which could trigger a trade war with China before the day is out.

I came away feeling a bit like Damocles — or rather, like the nation is Damocles, since the sword fell on my head sometime back. And we just elected a guy who thinks he’s a national hero because he interfered with one business that was going to send some jobs out of the country (an interference in the market that none of the economists think was a good idea).

I’m not holding my breath for any leadership on closing the Fiscal Gap. (Nor would I be had the Democrats swept the elections.) Are you?

"What's THAT hanging up there?" "Oh, that? I call it the Fiscal Gap..."

“What’s THAT hanging up there?” “Oh, that? I call it the Fiscal Gap…”

Pearl Harbor coverage, as it would have looked had there been iPad apps in 1941

ipad-page

I enjoyed this thing that The Wall Street Journal did this morning.

They did a mock home page for their app consisting of actual stories that ran in the paper on Dec. 8, 1941.

Here are links to a couple of the stories:

War With Japan: Washington Sees Fight on 2 Oceans and 3 Continents

All Consumption Curbs Due To Be Stiffened; Scarcity List Will Grow

I’m struck by how matter-of-factly these developments were accepted at the time. The stock market opened as usual the next morning? And can you imagine what a conniption the Journal would have today (on the editorial page, at least) over “consumption curbs?” The government, interfering with the holy marketplace? Good God, Lemon!

Below is an image of the actual front page from that date.

I thought that was pretty cool. But then I’m both a journalist, and a history geek…

original-page

‘The Perils of Empathy?’

The other day, I mentioned the effort to make SC roads safer in the name of Glenn Forrest Rabon, Jr., a young man who was killed on a road that everyone had known needed an upgrade.

I neither endorsed nor argued against the proposal, because the petition didn’t give me sufficient information to evaluate the proposal. And I wasn’t going to back the idea just because there was a sympathetic story attached.

Doug Ross went further, saying:

There’s something about naming these laws after people that just seems a little too self-centered for me. Calling the report on road conditions the “TRIPP Report” goes even further. Must we make this into an emotional “how can you refuse to support our dead son” campaign?

I wouldn’t put it exactly the way Doug did, but I think he and I had a similar problem with the petition. It’s not a matter of “self-centered,” exactly. But it’s governing by emotion rather than reason, and I see that sort of thing as problematic. At a moment in our history when the country just voted an expression of their viscera into the White House, I suppose that makes me a bit quaint, but…

Anyway, I was reminded of this when I read a piece in The Wall Street Journal over the weekend headlined, “The Perils of Empathy.” At first I assumed the author was, like Doug, a fan of Ayn Rand, which I most assuredly am not. After all, her followers regularly decry altruism as a bad thing.

But that’s not what the piece was about. It was all for compassion, just not empathy — or at least, not empathy taken to places where it should not go. Here’s what it was saying:

Our empathic responses are not just biased; they prompt us to ignore obvious practical calculations. In studies reported in 2005 in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, researchers asked people how much money they would donate to help develop a drug that would save the life of one child, and asked other people how much they would give to develop a drug to save eight children. The research participants were oblivious to the numbers—they gave roughly the same in both cases. And when empathy for the single child was triggered by showing a photograph of the child and telling the subjects her name, there were greater donations to the one than to the eight.

He felt our pain, but was that a GOOD thing?

He felt our pain, but was that a GOOD thing?

Empathy is activated when you think about a specific individual—the so-called “identifiable victim” effect—but it fails to take broader considerations into account. This is nicely illustrated by a classic experiment from 1995, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Subjects were told about a 10-year-old girl named Sheri Summers who had a fatal disease and was low on a wait list for treatment that would relieve her pain. When subjects were given the opportunity to give her immediate treatment—putting her ahead of children who had more severe illnesses or who had been waiting longer—they usually said no. But when they were first asked to imagine what she felt, to put themselves in her shoes, they usually said yes.

We see this sort of perverse moral mathematics in the real world. It’s why people’s desire to help abused dogs or oil-drenched penguins can often exceed their interest in alleviating the suffering of millions of people in other countries or minorities in their own country. It’s why governments and individuals sometimes care more about a little girl stuck in a well (to recall the famous 1987 case of Baby Jessica in Midland, Texas) than about crises that affect many more people….

The author goes on to say that “Most people would agree, on reflection, that these empathy-driven judgments are mistaken—one person is not worth more than eight, we shouldn’t stop a vaccine program because of a single sick child if stopping it would lead to the deaths of dozens.”

Indeed.

We don’t have to be hard-hearted. As the piece also notes, “Empathy can be clearly distinguished from concern or compassion—caring about others, valuing their fates.”

But we need to evaluate something called, for instance, “So-and-so’s Law,” where “So-and-so” is an emotionally appealing person who has suffered from the lack of such a law. We must always ask whether what is being proposed would actually help other so-and-sos, and whether it is the best way to help and whether the law does more good in the aggregate than it does harm.

Good points, but ones which may sometimes be counterintuitive…

Electors, your nation needs you to be ‘unfaithful’

Kathleen Parker has a good column that points to a way out of the madness for America.

And based on the president-elect’s behavior in the last few days (not to mention the preceding 70 years), we desperately need one:

A movement headed by a mostly Democratic group calling itself Hamilton Electors is trying to persuade Republican electors to defect — not to cede the election to Hillary Clinton but to join with Democrats in selecting a compromise candidate, such as Mitt Romney or John Kasich. It wouldn’t be that hard to do.

Mathematically, only 37 of Trump’s 306 electors are needed to bring his number down to 269, one less than the 270 needed to secure the presidency.

On the Hamilton Electors’ Facebook page, elector Bret Chiafalo, a Democrat from Washington, explains the purpose of the electoral college. If you haven’t previously been a fan of the electoral system, you might become one.

Bottom line: The Founding Fathers didn’t fully trust democracy, fearing mob rule, and so created a republic. They correctly worried that a pure democracy could result in the election of a demagogue (ahem), or a charismatic autocrat (ahem), or someone under foreign influence (ditto), hence the rule that a president must have been born in the United States. We know how seriously Trump takes the latter.

Most important among the founders’ criteria for a president was that he (or now she) be qualified. Thus, the electoral college was created as a braking system that would, if necessary, save the country from an individual such as, frankly, Trump…

Amen to that!

As the courageous Mr. Chiafalo says in the above video, “This is the moment that Hamilton and Madison warned us about. This is the emergency they built the Electoral College for. And if it our constitutional duty, and our moral responsibility, to put the emergency measures into action.”

Bret Chiafalo

Bret Chiafalo

There is no question whatsoever that he is right. This may not be what electors bargained for when they signed on, but their duty is clear. Each day provides us with startling new evidence of Donald Trump’s utter unsuitability for this office. The man is unhinged, and the Electoral College is our one remaining defense against him.

Yep, there are state laws binding electors to slavishly follow the choice made by the thing our founders rightly feared — mob rule, a.k.a. direct democracy. But the electors have a higher duty to the Constitution, and must follow it. I will gladly lead a fund-raising campaign to pay any fines levied against them. (And if something more than fines is involved, we need to have an urgent conversation about that.)

Electors who break with the popular vote are called “faithless.” That’s an Orwellian label if ever I’ve heard one. True faith with the nation, as set out in our Constitution, requires that electors be “faithless” in this national crisis.

Yep, Trump’s supporters will go nuts, because they won’t understand this. They’ll say the system is fixed. Well, it is. At least, it’s supposed to be. Hamilton promised us, in selling the Constitution as “Publius,” that “The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.”

And that’s true, if the College steps up and does its job.

Do your duty, electors. Don’t throw away your shot. If you live 100 years, it’s unlikely you will ever have such an opportunity to serve your country, and such an obligation to do so, as you have right now.

Open Thread for Tuesday, December 6, 2016

It occurs to me there have been several interesting things happening the last few days that we haven’t talked about:

  1. Dylann Roof allowed to hire lawyers back, for now — Strange goings-on in Richard Gergel’s court.
  2. Mistrial declared in black motorist’s shooting by officer — We’re not there viewing all the evidence. But yeah, to those of us who have only seen the infamous phone video, this is hard to fathom.
  3. Trump chats with Taiwan — Remember how China was cheering for Trump to win the election? I wonder whether they’re kicking themselves now. Personally, I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, it just isn’t done. Harrumph, etc. On the other, there might conceivably be an advantage to having a president dumb enough to do something like this, just as a way of provoking a conversation about the whole one-China diplomatic fiction. But don’t worry. I haven’t lost my mind. I’m not about to say, as Marc Thiessen did, that “Trump’s Taiwan call wasn’t a blunder. It was brilliant.” I think the truth is somewhere between that and “bottomless pig-ignorance.” I’m just not sure exactly where….
  4. Trump’s Carrier deal could permanently damage American capitalism — Let’s use the headline from Larry Summers’ piece to kick off our discussion of this thing, which Trump’s supporter think was just awesome. Then we can segue into a discussion of his protectionist threats over the weekend.
  5. Ben Carson has been named to be the head of something — Doesn’t much matter what it is; I’m not sure I’d put him in charge of anything. But it might have seemed marginally less strained to put him over HHS rather than HUD. Maybe Trump figured, based on his assumptions about how black folk live, that Carson must have grown up in the projects. That’s what Mike Huckabee thought. Well, he didn’t.

Anybody have anything else to bring up?

When Trump and Carson first bonded: Remember THIS special moment?

When Trump and Carson first bonded: Remember THIS special moment?

Tony thinks we’ll be OK. Let’s hope he’s right, as usual

Tony has always been one to feel our pain.

Our pal Tony has always been one to feel our pain.

Bryan calls my attention to the fact that while my main man Tony Blair is very concerned about the state of liberal democracy in Europe, he thinks his American friends will weather the Trump crisis:

WASHINGTON — Former British prime minister Tony Blair warns that political upheaval from Great Britain’s Brexit vote in June to the collapse of the Italian government on Sunday signals the most dangerous time for Western democracies in decades….

It has been a year of unexpected victories by populist and nationalistic forces that are challenging the establishment: passage of the referendum pulling Britain from the European Union, the election of Donald Trump as president in the United States, defeat of a measure in Italy that prompted the prime minister to announce his resignation.

And in the Austrian election Sunday, the candidate representing the party founded by former Nazis lost — but after commanding 46% of the vote….

“I’m less worried about America than I am about Europe; I’ll be very frank with you,” he said. “America is such a strong country and you’ve got so many checks-and-balances and you’ve got such resilience in your economy and so on; you guys will do fine, I’m sure. In Europe, we have systems that are at a point of fragility that troubles me.”…

Tony’s almost always right. Here’s hoping he is this time. Although for once, I doubt him. Rome thought it was big enough and strong enough and had checks and balances, too…

Will Mattis cross the Rubicon? Or did Trump already do that?

Caesar pauses at the Rubicon, before casting the die.

Caesar pauses at the Rubicon, before casting the die.

It’s been pointed out many times now that the issue of whether to grant a waiver to allow Gen. James Mattis to become Defense secretary goes back to 1950, when Congress granted a one-time exemption to George C. Marshall.

Actually, the issue goes back much, MUCH farther than that, to Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon, which signaled the pending demise of the Roman Republic.

In those days — and through much of history — generals tended to have more or less personal armies, filled with soldiers who felt they owed their fealty to the generals themselves at least as much as they did to the larger political entity that the army supposedly served. That proposed a threat to the stability of the Roman Republic, so they had a law — generals had to keep their armies out of Italy.

Julius Caesar broke that rule by taking his legion south of the Rubicon, and sure enough, republicans’ fears were realized.

I’ve always assumed that the reason I had to move around so much growing up as a Navy brat was that the U.S. military wisely keeps its officers from staying with the same unit or in the same community long enough to form those kinds of dangerous relationships — either with their troops or with local political leadership. My exposure early on to the dynamics of military coups in Latin America persuaded me of this.

(Weirdly, if you Google “why do people move so much in the military,” you don’t get that explanation. Which seems weird to me. Can anyone out there confirm whether MY understanding of the reason is correct?)

Anyway, the ironic thing here is that a lot of folks (including me to a certain extent) are painting Trump’s election as a harbinger of the demise of our own republic, as Americans turn to a strongman who promises to solve all our problems, and who has little grounding in the foundational principles of our society.

Some have drawn the comparison to Julius Caesar’s big move on Rome. Over the weekend, I enjoyed reading this piece by a historian, who wrote in The Washington Post to debunk such comparisons:

These comparisons are common. Former Supreme Court justice David Souter has said that embracing an all-powerful figure who promises to solve the nation’s problems is “how the Roman republic fell.” Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, ended democracy “because he promised that he would solve problems that were not being solved,” Souter said in the 2012 quote, which resurfaced during this fall’s campaign. Along those same lines, a Huffington Post headline claimed: “Rome Had Caesar. America Has Trump. The People Were and Are Desperate.”

But such comparisons are light on scholarship. Simply put, most experts believe there is little to compare. Yes, the United States has seen a rise in populism, but it hasn’t experienced a microgram of the violence that accompanied the fall of the Roman republic. The end came only after numerous civil wars over offices and honor , decades of gang violence in the capital, and waves of sanctioned political murder. By that measure, Trump is no Caesar…

That is somewhat reassuring. The historian is saying, I knew Caesar, and you, Mr. Trump, are no Caesar… And perhaps it’s a good thing to debunk such notions. The Secret Service would not want to see a latter-day Brutus and the rest getting ideas. Nor would I, let me say…

The reason the Trump-as-Caesar analogy strikes me as ironic is that the situation with Gen. Mattis offers the closer parallel to the actual principle involved in requiring the legion to stay in Gaul. And frankly, as I expressed earlier, I find the prospect of someone as qualified as Mattis to be a good and promising thing, by comparison with most aspects of the coming administration.

In other words, Mattis crossing the Rubicon might be a small salvation for our republic, or at least might mitigate some of the damage done by Consul Trump, who recently caused the plebeians to rise up…

rubicon2

… and then he goes ahead and crosses it, with the Legio XIII Gemina.