Spectator Sport

Watching President Trump try to beat the Congress into submission has been a uniquely gruesome experience, but also an edifying one. For decades now, the dysfunction of the federal government has been something sensed rather than seen, partly because it was in the interest of the political class to keep it hidden, and partly because the media, ever conscious of which side their bread was buttered on, shared that interest.

Today we’re told by Marc Short, the President’s director of legislative affairs, that the White House is simply “asking that the Congress do its job.” I wonder if he, or his boss, for that matter, has any idea just how big an ask that is. If the experience of the past 40 years or so is anything to go by, the problem isn’t that the Congress won’t do its job, it’s that it can’t. Our tolerance for venality, it seems, has drawn the veil over an alarmingly complete incompetence as well. What happens when you bully a moron? Nothing good, I’m thinking, but with the two-minute warning already being signaled, it looks as though we’re about to find out.

Defaming Youth

He (or she) is a teacher (or an employer.)

These kids today — I deal with a lot of them.

No. Not this. Not again.

They don’t like to work, and they don’t know anything. They can’t spell, they can’t add a column of figures. They can’t find France on a map, fer Chrissake.

I pull my iPhone 4S out of my pocket, hold it up to my ear.

Tell me about France, I say.

Five seconds later, the screen shows a zoomable map of France, with a virtual red push-pin sticking out of Paris. I hold out my hand, palm up.

Do you know the average age of Apple’s work force? I ask him (or her.)

The answer is 33. For Google, (which provided the map) it’s 31. Whatever is wrong with the country today, young people aren’t it.

The Democratic Deficit in Europe — Another View

From Dani Rodrik’s Europe’s Next Nightmare in Project Syndicate:

The challenge is to develop a new political narrative emphasizing national interests and values without overtones of nativism and xenophobia. If centrist elites do not prove themselves up to the task, those of the far right will gladly fill the vacuum, minus the moderation.

That is why outgoing Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou had the right idea with his aborted call for a referendum. That move was a belated attempt to recognize the primacy of domestic politics, even if investors viewed it, in the words of a Financial Times editor, as “playing with fire.” Scrapping the referendum simply postpones the day of reckoning and raises the ultimate costs to be paid by Greece’s new leadership.

A more moderately-worded view of Europe’s delusions. Then again, Rodrik doesn’t need to shriek — he isn’t looking directly down into the abyss. He’s over here on this side of the Atlantic, where we have our own problems with democracy. There are many pathways to the legitimacy conferred on a government by the consent of the governed. Europe can’t seem to find any of them, while we seem to have given up looking. Given that modern history hasn’t tolerated either form of benign neglect for very long, there doesn’t seem much point in preferring one over the other.

Not a Fool, but a Democrat

Today, in the Süddeutsche Zeitung online, an editorial by Heribert Prantly which makes, among others, the following point:

In der Spitzenpolitik wurde dieses Referendum diskutiert, als habe Premier Papandreou vorgeschlagen, die Demokratie in seinem Land durch ein russisches Roulette zu ersetzen – und als gelte es daher, dem Premier die Waffe wieder aus der Hand zu winden; das hat man denn auch getan. Dabei hatte Papandreou nichts anderes versucht, als die Demokratie in ihr Recht zu setzen: unzulänglich sicherlich, undiplomatisch, ohne zuvor an Angela Merkel und Nicolas Sarkozy wenigstens eine SMS geschickt zu haben.

Er hätte sein Vorhaben früher ankündigen, es besser vorbereiten, es hätte Teil des Euro-Rettungspakets sein müssen. Aber auch mit der falschen Verpackung und falsch dargereicht bleibt eine Medizin eine Medizin; man muss sie besser einsetzen, zur richtigen Zeit und in richtiger Dosierung. Eine Volksabstimmung ist kein Allheilmittel, sie ist aber auch kein Gift. Wer in einer Demokratie das Volk, den Demos, befragen will, ist zunächst einmal kein Narr, sondern ein Demokrat.

Or, as I translate it:

In senior political circles, this referendum was discussed as though Premier Papandreou had proposed replacing democracy in his country with Russian roulette, and as though it would therefore be appropriate to wrest the weapon out of his hands, which was in fact what was done. But in acting as he did, Papandreou had sought to do no more than give democracy its due — inadequately, to be sure, undiplomatically, and without having so much as sent Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy an SMS beforehand.

He should have announced his plan earlier, prepared it better, it ought to have been part of the Euro rescue package. But even in the wrong wrapper, and improperly administered, a medicine remains a medicine. One need only introduce it more properly, at the right time, and in the right dosage. A plebiscite is no cure-all, but neither is it a poison. In a democracy, he who wants to submit a question to the people, the demos, is first and foremost not a fool, but a democrat.

I agree completely, and can only add that it never ceases to amaze me how thoroughly people who consider themselves the intellectual and moral elite of their respective countries, the custodians of our modern, post-industrial civilization, discount this simple truth. Poke them a little, and none of them actually believes in democracy. That’s their right, I suppose, and no doubt they have their reasons, but I’d have more respect for them if they didn’t expend so much energy trying to convince me otherwise.

Eminently Good Sense

Listening to Noam Chomsky for the first time can be a little like discovering a new species of orchid sprouting in a Wal*Mart parking lot. We think we know where we are — everything looks and sounds the way it’s always looked and sounded — and then, suddenly, familiar perspectives seem to shift. It’s not that Chomsky’s take on things is entirely without precedent, but it’s a genuine shock to encounter anything like it in the familiar American here and now. If you’ve ever thought about looking for an antidote to all those hours of mindless pontification from Washington Week in Review, or Charlie Rose, this Noam Chomsky interview isn’t a bad place to begin:

Must We Say It Yet Again?

Despite the contempt expressed for honest people by modern campaign managers, foreign policy experts, and the heads of national intelligence services, honesty is not a form of mental retardation. People who tell the truth as they see it aren’t stupid. They’re very well aware that in the short run, lying can be effective in getting you something you want, or in keeping something you don’t want at a distance, and they know as well as anyone does that the commercial and political advantages accruing to adept practitioners of the dark arts of modern advertising and propaganda are real enough. So why do they still continue to believe, against all the accumulated evidence, that honesty is the best policy?

The answer, it seems to me, is based on a principle that you might call the diminishing marginal utility of cleverness. If one lie succeeds in its purpose, a clever person is probably justified in thinking that a second lie will work just as well. A truly sophisticated clever person, equipped with the all the latest sociological and neuroscientific research, and in control of a major media outlet or two, might well conclude that he can make a lie serve as well as the truth for the majority of those he wishes to influence to his own benefit. As it turns out, however, lying doesn’t scale as well as the research predicts.

Abraham Lincoln is famous for saying that you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. Maybe not, but given the tools available these days, there seems to be no shortage of clever people willing to give it a try. The jury is still out on whether or not their innovations will ultimately prove to be successful, at least in the terms which matter to them. What we do know is that a society which reaches the point at which everyone lies about everything all the time is more likely to experience a terminal exhaustion than a resurgence of interest in the truth. The late, unlamented Soviet Union is probably the best example we have of what happens when the substitution of systematic lying for honest discourse reaches its apogee.

The much-quoted witticism about the Soviet economy: They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work, sums up the consequences very nicely. We may lack the power to unmask the liar, or refute his lies, but we can certainly succumb to paranoia, cognitive dissonance, apathy and finally, a general collapse of trust. Just how smart, I have to wonder, is anyone eager to contribute to such an outcome? Whatever the answer, to remain honest seems to me a more attractive ambition for anyone with a concern for his immortal soul, even if it means that the smart money will always be invested with someone else.