Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Taking Goldhagen Seriously

A great deal of my FB feed of late is taken up with a steady stream of articles, memes, and statements around one argument: that Donald Trump is politically akin to Adolf Hitler, so much so that we should be worried about the United States slipping from democracy to fascism or some other form of nationalist authoritarianism.

Like all historical analogies (and especially like all instances of Godwin's Law), this one tends towards confirmation bias - people see the similarities and discount the differences. It seems material, for example, that Adolf Hitler had by the early 1930's a thoroughly developed political ideology, which he had written out in book form, whereas Donald Trump appears to have no coherent ideology and has never written a book on his own in his life. The former was an ascetic vegetarian, the latter a sybarite with enormous appetites.

While this exercise is intellectually interesting, it doesn't get at the important question: how likely is the United States to change from a functioning democracy to an authoritarian regime of some sort? Focusing on the election of a particular leader is one piece of the puzzle, but it misses other important variables.

If we are insistent on using Hitler's Nazi Germany as the yardstick, then we need to look seriously at that case and not merely at simplified versions of it. In particular, I think we need to take seriously the argument put forward some twenty years ago by Daniel Goldhagen in his book, Hitler's Willing Executioners.

Goldhagen's work should be required reading for anybody who wants to use Nazi Germany as an analogy, not because he is necessarily right (he may be) but because he tells a very different story about how the Nazi regime worked. Our simplified American story is that Hitler and a small group of fanatically committed followers were able to take over the German political system and turn it the Nazi regime we know today by a combination of repression, intimidation, and keeping people in the dark. The "cause" of Nazi Germany is reduced to Hitler and his immediate inner circle, which absolves the rest of the population of responsibility. This story also raises the specter of the same thing happening here against our (the people's) will.

Goldhagen's book turns this story on its head. He argues that the Nazi regime succeeded because, and only because, a large majority of the German population actually agreed with its aims (in particular, the racial purification of the country) - hence the title, "Willing Executioners". In his work, Goldhagen casts serious doubt on parts of our standard story, in particular that Germans were kept in the dark about the Holocaust and didn't know what was going on.

Goldhagen's work raises a serious question: to what extent is the acquiescence if not enthusiastic participation of the population a necessary condition to a nationalist authoritarian regime? Leaving aside the details of Goldhagen's argument, this is the fundamental issue - are the feelings of the population a relevant variable in enabling a fascist government?

I think that the answer to this question must be "yes". Authoritarian governments have maintained their status through power and intimidation, against the will of the population - East Germany and North Korea come to mind - but these cases tend to be governments established in time of war, when force of arms was sufficient to shape a new political order. The Nazi example is so compelling to us precisely because Hitler didn't conquer Germany, he got elected (albeit by 1/3 of the population, at least initially).

There is no reasonable scenario under which the US government will be overthrown by force and our new political order established by military might. For all of its lumps, our current structure of government is our starting point. And if Goldhagen's hypothesis holds any water, it will be very difficult - perhaps even impossible - to turn that structure into an authoritarian one, whatever an elected leader may say.

It is clear that at this point that there is no ideology that commands the loyalty of the majority of Americans, largely because we are mostly tribal and post-ideological in our politics. Donald Trump has, as of this moment, a 40% approval rating - lower by 1/3 than George W. Bush's at the same point relative to his inauguration in 2001, and that was after the most contentious election in modern US history.

Because the internet has provided a megaphone to anyone who wants one, we can easily confuse volume and shrillness for strength. Our enemies (on whichever side we think they may be) seem large and terrifying. But if you're looking for a constituency ready to support a Trump authoritarianism, I suspect that (despite their loudness and shrillness) you're not looking at very many people.

I've argued before that Presidents aren't Gods. We ascribe far too much importance, and far greater power, to the office than it actually has, even in modern times as successive Presidents have used a dysfunctional Congress to expand the Executive reach. Donald Trump cannot turn the United States into a fascist country. Only we can do that. And I don't see any indications that Americans are willing to do so.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Bubbles, Reason, and Fear

Like many Americans, I watched President Obama's farewell address on TV last night. And like many, I found it to be moving and inspirational at many points. People may disagree with his policies and his results - heck, I disagree with some of his policies and his results - but I hope that there is a broad agreement that he has, on balance, been good for the office of the Presidency.

I know this sounds naive in the face of the rampant and irrational partisanship of our age. So be it. Lots of people think Obama is the antiChrist - not much we can do there. I prefer to ignore them. They're likely not reading this anyway.

Among many excellent points made in the speech (you can read the entire prepared text here), two stood out to me: his argument about the need for reason and his concern about "bubbles", especially social media bubbles.

I have been thinking a lot about both of these of late. My own social media bubble has been overrun for the past month with anxiety and fear. And because the fears are of the future - of things that haven't yet happened, but are imagined as likely or going to happen - they run unchecked. No appeal to reason can assuage them. Many of my friends are terrified, depressed, or both.

Some are also distraught and angry, and are seeking to channel that anger into action towards what they regard as better outcomes. That is all to the good - President Obama's call for everyone to be involved, at all levels, was well and sincerely made, and we will all be better off if more folks get involved in arguing, organizing, and pushing for what they think is right.

It's the fear and depression that I find more concerning. The tendency, it seems, is to swell political issues and problems to the size of existential crises, so that they sweep away all other concerns, thoughts, and values. Our lives are so much more than national politics - indeed, on a day-to-day basis national politics play only a tiny part in our time and attention. But because of the bubble effect, our politics have come to take over our lives. I believe this is very unhealthy, and does us far more harm than good. I also believe we have a choice in the matter.

I could argue (and have) that what we are facing is not an existential crisis. An existential crisis, politically speaking, is Somalia or Libya - a complete breakdown in all governing structures and "government" by warlords. There is no road from where we are that leads there.

We're not even facing the "Dirty War" years of Argentina, when a totalitarian government seized power from an elected one and proceeded to torture and "disappear" people by the tens of thousands for the better part of a decade. We are light years away from that kind of political and cultural collapse.

This helps lend a little perspective. We are facing the next few years of politics that a majority of Americans, often for very good reason, won't like. Civil rights may get harder to defend, discrimination may rise, racism and hate may be more out in the open. The rich may well get richer at the expense of the rest of us (although, in all fairness, that's been happening for the last 8 years, and the 8 years before that...) The US government may screw up some international relationships, and as a result crises will have worse outcomes for US interests and we may lose power and influence around the world. Millions might lose health insurance. Lots of bad stuff may well (probably will) happen.

But here's the thing. When we spend our days and evenings reading post after post, op-ed after op-ed, mostly from politically biased and emotionally charged sources, that talk about how all of these bad things will happen, that all of this is just around the corner - it begins to take over our view of the world. If all you ever read is bad news - in this case, the anticipation of bad news - then everything starts to look bad. Just as with our bodies, "you are what you eat", our minds are the same. To borrow from Nietzsche, the longer we stare into the abyss, the more the abyss stares back into us.

Politics at the national level are important. But they are not everything. Most of what matters in our lives happens far away from Washington. The nature of our job, whether our boss is decent person or not, our relationship with our spouse, how our kids are doing in school, traffic on our local roads, the quality of life in our communities - these and hundreds of other things all go on being and changing regardless of who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. What the federal government does can have an impact, usually at the margins, but lots of other things matter more. They're just not on CNN or our social media feeds.

"But what about...?" There are a thousand "but what abouts". Yes, there are serious things with serious consequences. Yes, global warming is real and having an incoming administration that doesn't seem to take it seriously is bad. I am not calling, in any way, shape, or form, for us to simply ignore all the bad stuff and pretend it isn't there. I stand with President Obama: we all have a duty to be involved in trying to make our nation and the world a better place, which means facing challenges squarely.

What I refuse to do is let the bad stuff own me. The world is more than the bad stuff. There is nobility, and grace, and kindness, and simple acts of goodness all around us, every day. For every racist fool whose video-recorded tirade goes viral on YouTube, there are a million decent people who held a door open for a harried mom, who helped a man in a wheelchair reach an item on the top shelf, who took the time to smile back at a child. For every five minutes we spend reading some toxic spew on the internet, there are hours we spend with our kids, our parents, our spouse, our friends, our dog.

Beyond this - which is hopefully accessible to anybody - I want to offer a perspective that likely only some of my readers will share. A part of my identity, as my friends know, is as a Christian. I was raised in the Episcopalian tradition, have spent time in wonderful Lutheran churches, and am currently active in an Episcopal congregation. My faith perspective is similar - though by no means identical - to those of many other Christians, both Protestant and Catholic.

When I look at this through the lens of my Christianity, I am immediately faced with a stark question: Do I take my faith seriously, or don't I? A core of Christian belief is that God created humanity and seeks relationship with the Created, and that the basis of that relationship is intended to be what we call Good: justice, peace, righteousness. We may argue around the margins about what exactly these mean, but the basic point is clear.

Christians also believe that God works - in ways that we often do not understand - in and through Creation to achieve that relationship. We believe that the fulcrum and culmination of that work was in a particular time and place and person, and that the death and resurrection of that person has (to borrow my rector's phrase) "already and not yet" restored Creation to what God wants it to be.

Christians believe, as MLK Jr. put it, that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice". That God is working his purpose out towards not just a more perfect Creation, but towards the perfect Creation. We believe that, though there will be "wars and rumors of wars", that in the end God's will shall prevail and all shall be well. And we profess that, despite all the troubles and travails of this world, "neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God".

I look at all of this - a fairly plan, ordinary, basic description of the Christian faith - and I am challenged: Do I believe these things or don't I? Because if I do, then all of the "existential crisis/end of the world as we know it" concern that flows through Facebook and Twitter and indeed much of our national conversation, doesn't look very scary. Yes, bad things are happening now. But I am confident about how the story ends. There's no suspense. I already know the outcome.

Many Christians know (but easily forget) that the most oft-repeated commandment in the Bible is this: "Be not afraid". If I'm not supposed to be afraid in the face of God, why on earth should I be afraid of Donald Trump? The whole thing becomes simply ridiculous.

I don't know that any of this will convince anybody, and I don't expect it to. I only know that my path and my responsibilities will be the same on January 21 as they are on January 19, as they were last year and the year before and the year before that. Love God and love my neighbor. Do what little I can, with what little I have, to make the world a better place. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. And leave the rest to God.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Thoughts on Trump and the International Environment (Cross-Posting)

Earlier this week I published a piece over at Relations International about the potential implications of a Trump administration on the international system. It's mostly a means of reminding ourselves that the world is how it is in large part because of the United States, and that no dominant world power has ever walked away from its role before - so, as my friend Peter Trumbore pointed out, a lot of hypotheses will be tested in the next couple of years.

You can go check out my piece here.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Drag Racing the Prius: Government, Business, and the Dangers of Bad Metaphors

I think I'll take my Prius drag racing.

It makes perfect sense, right? After all, a Prius is just like those cars you see tearing down the track at drag races. It has four wheels, each with an inflated rubber tire. It has an engine powered by oil-based fuel. It's got a seat for a driver, with a steering wheel. It's got a transmission system, and a bunch of electrical support stuff. I mean, they're practically the same thing.

Of course, this is crazy. A Prius, despite some superficial similarities, is not a drag racer. Attempting to run mine on a drag strip is likely to fail, and cause a fair amount of damage in the process. A drag racer is built for speed. A Prius (unless you heavily modify it!) is built for gas mileage.

Along similar lines, why do so many people insist on arguing that "government should be run like a business"?

This is a popular metaphor, resurrected recently as a rationale for supporting Donald Trump for President. If the government should be run like a business, who better to run it than a successful businessman who is busy stocking his cabinet with other successful businessmen?

(I will leave aside the question of whether Trump is actually successful or not. For my purposes, whether he's a good businessman or a bad one is irrelevant.)

Businesses and governments do share some things superficially in common. What most people are thinking of when they use this comparison is that both have budgets. Businesses have revenues and expenses, and so do governments. Government at the national level tends to run a fairly serious deficit, which is seen in many conservative quarters as a bad thing. Businesses, or so it is claimed, can't run structural deficits for long or they go out of business. Hence, the argument that governments should be run like businesses.

(It should be noted that lots of other things have budgets, too - churches, households, stray pet shelters, homeowners associations. No one ever says we should run government like a church.)

There are a few other points of similarity - businesses and governments both have rules and authority structures, both are to some degree hierarchical, and both are made up of people who fill particular roles within the larger organization. These are minor matters, a little like saying that a Prius and a drag racer both have spark plugs.

The fact that "business" and "government" both belong to the broader category called "human organization" tells you very little about how to run the latter. The differences between them are far more important than the similarities. And like the comparison between Prius and drag racer, what is most important is the purpose for which each was built.

A business is an organization designed to produce some product or service for the wider world, usually (though not always) at a profit. A business creates what it creates. It is primarily concerned with two groups of people: the owners (who control the business, and in whose interest it presumably operates) and the customers. A business can define its own customer base, to a substantial degree, and doesn't need to concern itself with anybody else in society. Businesses don't even have to be all that concerned about their employees, except as these are necessary to produce the product or service.

Governments look nothing like this. They are not meant to operate at a profit, and those that do are generally regarded as corrupt and illegitimate. Governments do not produce individual goods or services, but provide public goods to a broad group of people known as citizens. Except at the margins, governments have very little ability to define who they serve, and governments that decide to serve only one segment of the population usually find themselves losing legitimacy. Legitimate governments can't pick their "customer base".

We can perhaps lay this confusion at the feet of Calvin Coolidge, who famously said, "the chief business of the American people is business." By this he meant that most individual Americans are chiefly concerned with making a living for themselves. In this, he was at least partially right.

But the chief purpose of the government is not to be a business, but to provide a safe, secure, and fair environment in which everybody can pursue their own individual business. If businesses are like sports teams competing, government is like the referee enforcing the rules of the game.

Ultimately, the purpose of a business is to advance the interests of its owners, usually a small group of people. The purpose of a government is to advance the interests of everybody. A business is partial to itself. A good government is impartial towards all.

In this sense, being a successful businessman makes one little more qualified to run a government than being a successful gymnast, or race car driver, or neurosurgeon. These are all completely different human endeavors requiring different skill sets. They may overlap in some ways (success everywhere requires determined effort and the ability to learn and adapt, for example), but the goals and purposes of each are radically different.

So let's stop talking about how government should be run like a business. I don't want my government run like a business (Verizon customer service, anyone?) I want it run like a government, with the interests of all of its people in mind.

Friday, December 16, 2016

"Faithless Electors" - the Legitimacy Dilemma

There is a lot of talk in Democratic/leftist/anti-Trump circles about the prospects of "faithless electors" turning the tide and keeping Donald Trump out of the White House. It appears to be technically true, as a matter of process, that the members of the Electoral College can in fact vote for whomever they wish, and that their votes (and ONLY their votes) determine who the next President of the United States will be. It is not clear, under the various and sundry state election laws, what the consequence would be of an elector voting for someone other than the candidate to whom the state's election pledged them; however, even if there are such consequences it's not clear that such laws can prevent electors from doing so, or overturn their votes if they do.

A lot of the folks pushing this idea are focused on the outcome. They know what they want: they want somebody (anybody, really) other than Donald Trump to be President. In my view, however, process is far more important than outcome, because outcomes are always temporary - processes tend to stick with us for a very long time.

This is why the Electoral College movement concerns me. A lot of folks have called for the end of the Electoral College entirely, and maybe that's a good idea. But that would take a Constitutional amendment - not at all an easy thing to do - and more importantly, we would have to agree on what process of election would replace it.

At this time in our nation's history, it's not at all clear to me that we have the ability to have that conversation. We are so focused on the outcomes of our own tribes that we have lost the sense that we all live under a common set of rules, and that those shared rules and norms matter. Not long ago, telling the truth mattered for political leaders. Yes, there was always spin and shading. But now we have an elected leader who shows a reckless disregard for the truth. He doesn't care. That's a norm lost, sometime we used to agree on that's gone now.

So if there are enough Faithless Electors to turn the tide and prevent Donald Trump from assuming the Presidency, then what? The rules may be crazy, but they're the only rules we have. If those electors throw the race into the House, does the House just turn around and elect Trump anyway? And if someone else is chosen, will that person be seen as legitimate, either by the rest of the government or by the American people generally?

To be fair, I think the legitimacy argument can be overblown, for two reasons. First, because we've become so tribal and outcome-focused, there's a fair amount of delegitimizing whoever's in the White House anyway. George W Bush and Barack Obama have both faced portions of the population who believed strongly that they were illegitimate occupants of the Oval Office. Both managed to execute the duties of the office anyway. Because Hillary won the popular vote, there are folks who are already inclined to see Trump's victory as illegitimate. That goes with the territory.

Second, we tend to have a bias towards imbuing whatever happens with a measure of legitimacy, largely because the consequences otherwise are potentially large and potentially disastrous. Yes, rules can be imperfect; yes, systems can be weak. The preponderance of evidence is that George W. Bush didn't really win Florida (and therefore, the White House) in 2000, but once we settled the legal issues surrounding recounts we never really looked back. This is true because nobody could really envision any alternatives.

This is both the danger of messing with the Electoral College, and the defense against it. If we upset the apple cart, we risk creating enormous uncertainty. As deadlocked as the government is (mostly in Congress), we could risk further crippling it by throwing the executive branch into chaos, with no clear leadership. And we risk opening a massive can of worms that I don't think we, as a nation, are ready to deal with.

So for those participating in the Faithless Elector movement - be careful what you wish for. There may be worse outcomes, either now or down the road, to a President Trump.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Karate and Life: Know Yourself

Gichin Funakoshi's fourth Precept is this:
First know yourself before attempting to know others.
Unlike the first three, this one doesn't have an obvious connection to the martial arts. What does "knowing yourself" have to do with karate?

People who have studied the martial arts - or any other demanding discipline - seriously for a time know, however, that any discipline in a journey of self-knowledge. In the case of karate, the more I study and practice the more I learn about myself physically, mentally, and emotionally. I learn what I can and can't do, what I am and am not prepared to do, what my strengths and limitations are, and how far I can push the boundaries of all of these things.

The injunction to know yourself before trying to know others starts with the physical. If I don't understand my own body and its movements, someone else's will likely baffle me. That's why people with expertise in any area, from sports to martial arts to music, can watch someone else perform and "see" things that the rest of us can't see.

But this pretty quickly goes beyond the physical. If I haven't made the effort to understand myself, to get "inside" something and try to make it work for me, how can I pass judgment on someone else? And if I haven't really wrestled with myself in a given area, to test my ideas and thoughts and values, how then can I try to do so with someone else?

At its heart, this is a call for humility. It is entirely consistent with the parable about specks and logs (Matthew 7), and any number of other teachings about the need to understand ourselves rather than pass judgment on others.

In this day and age, humility is not much commended as a virtue anymore. We are quick to pass judgment on others, to rain down our wrath and indignation on things we don't understand. Trying to understand, rather than to judge, is seen as weak. For a recent example, check out this story about reactions to a staff member at Ohio State who suggested (via Twitter) that a search for compassion and understanding were appropriate towards the perpetrator of violence.

In today's world, humility takes courage, because it means standing up to the mobs baying for blood. But as CS Lewis reminded us, courage is really the form of every virtue at the point where it is tested. Today we humility is facing terrible and difficult tests. Will you try to know yourself first?

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Rethinking the Morality of Our Economy

As we continue examination of last month's surprising election results and the transition to a new Presidency, there is a lot of writing and thinking about the role of the economy and different people's places in it. Many have pointed out the strong rural-urban divide (see this Brookings Institution piece, for example) and the apparent chasm between well-educated city-dwellers (who voted overwhelmingly for Clinton) and less well-educated rural folks (who largely voted for Trump). At least some of what fueled Trump's victory seems to have been a desire for jobs that once existed but are now gone, along with a perceived decline in living standards.

A lot of our national conversation about jobs and the economy rests less on economics than on a surprisingly deep and unexamined bed of moral assumptions. Consider, for example, this article:
Driverless 18-Wheelers Coming to Ohio
In many ways, this is a familiar story of automation displacing human labor. We have seen the same thing in heavy manufacturing, in coal mining, in the steel industry, in farming. Plants, factories, and farms than a few decades ago employed thousands now employ a few hundred - and are more productive than they used to be. Nearly 20 years ago Paul Kennedy identified robotic automation as one of the major forces that would reshape the world in Preparing for the 21st Century.

Every time we go through another cycle, there is always concern for the workers "left behind". There have generally been two answers to this problem. The first is "benign neglect" - let folks figure it out on their own, often by moving to places where there are more jobs, and/or sinking into poverty and despair. The second has been some variation of job training/education, to "retool" workers so that they are qualified to do jobs that haven't yet been eliminated by automation.

Deep underneath all of this is a root assumption far more moral than economic. If we start asking "why", we get a chain of logic that looks something like this:

Why do workers need to retrain? So they can get new jobs that pay well.
Why do they need jobs that pay well? So they can enjoy a good standard of living.
Why is a job necessary for a good standard of living? Because that's the way we distribute resources in our economy.
Why do we distribute resources according to the use of labor? .....

This is where we hit the moral bedrock - which automation technology may eventually cause us to reexamine. We assume that wealth must be attached to labor because ... well, because wealth distributed any other way would reward laziness. Why give people money they haven't earned? We can't imagine doing it any other way.

This notion that wealth or resources must be earned is fundamentally moral. It is based on a statement of what "should" be. It is entirely possible to distribute resources in other ways and on other bases, as the "basic income" movement argues. Many objections to that argument amount to moral repugnance rather than reasoned debate, which is why I suspect it hasn't gotten very far.

It should be pointed out that, even in our present labor-market-driven system, we are not purists about "earning". Children under the age of 14 or 16 or 18, for example, don't "earn" their keep by producing, yet few people would argue that they should. That was not true 150 years ago; we once had a system in which child labor was not only allowed but expected, and children as young as 5 or 6 were held to the same moral standards of earning as adults. We do not lack for alternative ideas, we just haven't thought about them much.

So why are driverless trucks important? Because the trend lines here are clear, even if their precise measure is difficult. We will continue to find more efficient ways to produce goods and services with less and less labor input. At the same time, our population isn't declining - it's growing, if slowly (speaking here solely of the United States - in some places, like Russia and Japan, it's shrinking). At the very least, we can expect population to level off and remain steady, which in the US means ~320 million or more people.

So what happens when those curves cross - when automation means that there simply aren't enough productive jobs for all of our workforce? Some "products", like art or music, can be produced in more or less infinite quantities, but the current labor market in those areas means that the more musicians or artists there are, the poorer all of them will be as they compete for a finite market.

The economic challenges that have surfaced through the US election are real. Promises to turn back the clock and "bring jobs back" aren't going to solve them - the trend lines aren't going back. Youngstown, Ohio is never again going to have thousands of steelworkers, no matter what kind of deals President Trump thinks he can cut.

Eventually, these curves will meet and we will be forced to rethink our most basic assumptions. We will have to stop defining people's value, in economic terms, on the basis of what they produce economically, because there will not be enough work for everyone to be productive. And that will require a moral shift, so that we cease to put "earning" at the center of our moral universe. That won't be easy, and maybe we won't manage it at all (although the alternatives are far more dystopian). But we need to start thinking about this now.