Better Skills

As political slogans go, “Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages” is in many respects… suboptimal. Yet I do think that it represents mainstream Democrats’ vision in an authentic way. They agree with the Republicans that all of life should be a ruthless competition, for all eternity. They agree that the individual should be responsible for every decision and outcome, as a matter of principle. The difference is that the Democrats want to set things up to slightly decrease the chances that you will irrevocably screw up, whereas the Republicans want to leave losers to die. Hence Democrats come up with a plan whereby people are forced to buy health insurance, while the Republicans openly muse about how maybe having a preexisting condition means that you are a bad person who deserves to die. On the job front, Democrats want to help people become more competitive on the job front, while Republicans think colleges should be burned to the ground.

What we’re dealing with here, fundamentally, is two different strategies for bringing the job market into equilibrium and restoring America’s global competitiveness. The Democrats are dangling the prospect of short-term advantage for particularly industrious individuals, but the end logic of their plan is to commodify those in-demand job skills, converting ever more occupations into disposable cheap labor. Democrats are opening up the possibility of economic survival to more people, but not really increasing the number of slots available. The Republican strategy, by contrast, appears to be to let the dying communities just die — not to drive up wages for those left behind, but apparently out of a sheer desire to make sure that the losers lose.

It’s as though the Democrats are Chigurh from No Country for Old Men: you’re most likely going to die, but you do have the option of a coin toss. The Republicans don’t offer the coin toss. Which one is better? The Democrats, obviously! But if you were someone in a dying community that had been starved for jobs for a generation, the kind of place where everyone leaves if they can, would you bother getting up in the morning to pull the lever for that option?

On “National X Days”: An ontological investigation

The era of social media has seen a remarkable proliferation of “National Days” dedicated to particular themes. Today, for instance, I learned from Twitter that it is #NationalFriedChickenDay. I enjoy fried chicken as much as the next guy, and so I understand, to some extent, the impulse to take some time out to focus our attention on its unique virtues. Yet why should precisely today be set aside for the purpose of reflection on fried chicken, not only for a chicken-loving individual but for the entire nation?

The designation of a “National Day” certainly indicates some level of official authorization. The clear implication is that we are not dealing with a merely local phenomenon like a hypothetical “Taco Tuesday,” observed only in a particular school cafeteria, with no expectation that anyone outside the immediate community should be expected to serve, or indeed even to think about, tacos on that or any other Thursday. In the case of “Taco Tuesday,” the source of the designation is clear: either the cafeteria staff or their superiors. Yet who has the power to declare the “National Days” known to social media? The President? Congress? Much as I would like to envision them plotting out a calendar of National Days rather than plotting to abandon the poor and sick to death, I doubt that there is a presidential declaration that today is National Fried Chicken Day. Is it some kind of industry trade group? Some guy at KFC?

What is interesting to me is how incurious we are about this question of authorization. We might ask about it, but it is always rhetorical and sarcastic. Though I am a prime candidate to do so given that I am wasting my time writing this post, even I am not going to waste my time searching for the source of National Fried Chicken Day. The very fact that it is trending on social media — especially in the form of a literal hashtag, as with #NationalChickenDay — is enough to make it “a thing,” or better, a meme.

Is it “really” National Fried Chicken Day? The question makes about as much sense as asking whether Kermit drinking tea is “really” a meme. Yes, it is as real as any meme is. This is not to say there are no limits. The series of foreboding images with the caption “I would like to add you to my professional network on Linkedin” (Killer Bob from Twin Peaks, etc.) that I posted a few weeks ago is not “really” a meme, because no one else joined in. Nor would it “really” be National Ontological Investigation Day if I simply declared it to be so. It would have to reach a critical mass, sufficient for the algorithm to pick up on it and create the self-reinforcing cycle of trending.

And so when we ask who decides it’s National Fried Chicken Day, there is a sense in which we all do, insofar as we entertain the idea once it is presented to us. There is a deeper sense in which no one decides, because the “decision” on whether a given National Day has reached critical mass to be distributed further is a function of the impersonal algorithm. Coming from another angle: presumably industry trade groups and fan clubs have declared such National Days from time immemorial, so to that extent there is probably someone out there with an investment in the topic who has declared the day. Yet who decided that such days should be taken seriously, that they should at the very least be presented as fodder for our cynical social media riffs? In other words, who decided that we should be fed a serving of meaningless bullshit every day? I don’t know exactly who, but they probably are determinate individuals with names and faces that are knowable. They decided that a good way to make money would be to get us talking about #NationalFriedChickenDay, and I bet they’re millionaires.

The principle of contradiction

If you believe that you have caught your enemy in a contradiction, you are mistaken. At best, you have misjudged their real priorities and goals. At worst, you have fallen for a deliberate smokescreen, designed to confuse and distract you. In a political struggle, there are no “meta” statements — all claims and arguments, including and especially seemingly descriptive statements about goals and priorities, are moves in the game. Take the example of a hard-nosed, zero-sum negotiation: when someone claims something is non-negotiable and later gives way on it, that does not show that they are illogical hypocrites. It shows that they were trying to bluff you. It gives you more information to win out in the negotiation going forward (or tells you you’ve already won).

I have long been a critic of liberal hypocrisy attacks: they say they care about the deficit, but they favor huge unfunded tax cuts; they say they favor gun rights, but don’t stand up for black gun owners; they say they’re pro-life, but abandon millions to die without medical treatment. In reality, liberals should be familiar with the gambit of embracing a seemingly abstract principle while secretly wanting more specific results — see the rhetoric of “diversity,” for instance, which clearly means a particular kind of diversity (racial, gender, sexuality, etc.) and definitely does not mean other kinds (a rich panoply of Nazis, flat-earthers, etc.). Everyone tries to “launder” their particular goals through empty slogans that have broader appeal. The right is willing to call out the smokescreen for what it is — “they say they want diversity, but only their kind of diversity!” — whereas the liberal weirdly insists on holding them to the principle that has just been revealed to be a lie.

And that’s because liberals are mistaken in the most fundamental way: they have not simply misjudged their enemy’s priorities or strategies, they have misjudged the very situation in which they find themselves. They think they are dealing with a debate partner rather than an enemy. I can see the appeal of a world in which there were only debate partners and no enemies, but we do not live in that world. There really are enemies, and they can’t be defeated by tattling to some non-existent judge about how they’re not playing by the rules.

The nihilism of the “Republican overreach” strategy

It’s becoming increasingly clear that Democrats want people to suffer. They conceive this suffering as educational, teaching people a valuable lesson about not choosing the smart, sensible party. Yet there is an undeniable element of jouissance when we see liberal Twitter luminaries and respectable columnists declaring that Trump voters deserve what they get. That’ll teach them!

This demand for suffering is different from that of the Republicans, who want people to suffer as an end in itself. Democrats hold out the prospect of redemption, of becoming a meritocratic college graduate regardless of your background, of joining a diverse and hopeful ruling class. But if you unaccountably choose not to do so, despite all the nudging of incentives, then you deserve what you get.

This strategy appears to be reaching a terminal phase. First we have the evidence that the Clinton campaign encouraged Trump’s candidacy because they viewed him as more beatable. Surely, faced with the omnishambles of Trump, the American people would eat their vegetables and keep their date with history by electing Hillary! Even if this strategy had worked, however, it would have done incalculable damage, filling the airwaves with racism and boasts about sexual abuse, giving a lunatic an unlimited public platform to incite violence, and all the while coming up against the media’s deep-seated desire to normalize whatever comes out of the two major parties. Creating a world in which Trump is possible, in which he is one of the options on the table, is not worth it, especially for what would have turned out to be a demoralizing four to eight years of divided government at best.

Now they are doubling down. There are rumors that the Democrats are not going to “go nuclear” on the American Health Care Act — “going nuclear” being their term for the fillibuster, which the Republicans deployed for literally every bill, nomination, and request for a bathroom pass throughout Obama’s term. [CORRECTION: The “nuclear” option refers to using procedural means to halt all business in the Senate; if the bill qualifies for reconciliation, no fillibuster is possible. I still maintain my broader point and think they should in fact do the “nuclear option.”] In a context when the House Democrats spontaneously broke out in song to celebrate Republicans’ self-inflicted wound, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that they want to allow this abomination — which will quite literally kill people — in the hopes of reaping electoral rewards. Even as a political strategy, this makes no sense: Wouldn’t it help their case if they could say that they had done everything they could to stop it? It’s as though they don’t want to take the risk of actually stopping it, because they view the death and deprivation and arbitrary cruelty that will follow in the wake of the Republicans’ demolition of the Democrats’ only tangible achievement of our young century as a necessary step to electing more Democrats.

This is the point where you remember that the lesser evil is still evil.

Politics and Persuasion

Approximately every two weeks, I go on a mini-rant on Twitter about people pointing out Republican hypocrisy. The most recent occasion was a juxtaposition between two tweets from Newt Gingrich, one praising the special prosecutor and the other freaking out over him. Clearly, the two tweets were saying different and incompatible things. That is indisputable. The deeper truth here, though, is that someone spent part of their finite time on earth reading, studying, and screen-capping tweets from Newt Gingrich, in the apparent belief that this would produce some kind of political result. I mourn for that person’s lost time, for irreplaceable moments of life that they will never get back.

And why do I mourn? Because Newt Gingrich just kind of “says stuff.” We all know this. He says whatever seems helpful to his personal ambitions and those of the movement with which he is aligned. Often, this takes the form of saying things solely to piss off liberals. He is not making an argument. He is not striving for consistency. He is not even really trying to persuade people of anything, at least not in a sense that would be familiar in a classroom, for instance.

Arguing against self-serving bullshit is worse than a waste of time — it degrades the very idea of debate. It spuriously grants bullshit the dignity of an argument. You can’t debate with Newt Gingrich because he’s not debating. He’s fighting. And though he is a political non-entity right now, he led a nationwide movement that just about strangled the Clinton presidency to death (and arguably made a second Clinton presidency impossible by spreading crazy accusations and conspiracy theories). So at this late date, for people not to know what Newt Gingrich is, for people to approach him as though he’s a potential dialogue partner even in the minimal mode of pointing out that he’s not — it’s upsetting.

This is not to say that politics shouldn’t be about persuasion, but persuasion isn’t about winning the argument. In fact, winning the argument can often make people hate and distrust you. (See, for example, the last forty years of US politics.)

Trump shows us there just shouldn’t be a president in the first place

The existence of a chief executive officer of the state introduces a conceptual problem: how can you enforce the law against the person who has the final say on law enforcement? It is not possible for this enforcement to come from within the executive itself, because that would introduce an infinite regress problem — the only person who could enforce the law against the president would be a meta-president, and who could take action against the meta-president who failed to enforce the law properly, etc., etc.? The legislative and judicial branches technically “check” the behavior of the executive, but the Bush era shows how easy it is for a motivated executive to elude both constraints: by issuing “signing statements” declaring the intention to construe laws in counterintuitive ways, for instance, or by either ignoring court orders or carrying out illegal activities in places where the courts do not have jurisdiction. Both restraints are fatally weakened by the necessity that it is precisely the executive branch that must carry out the law and the legal judgments — putting us right back where we started.

The congressional power of impeachment is the only effective check on presidential action, but it presents an almost impossibly high bar to removal. Only in the most extreme circumstances will there be a 2/3 majority of the Senate willing to actually remove a president, even leaving aside partisan loyalties. The fact that no president has ever been impeached and removed from office should show that the impeachment power is all but a dead letter. (Nixon is not a good counterexample — he left office on his own terms and was pardoned by his successor, avoiding all legal consequences for his crimes.)

The only answer is not to have a president in the first place. An executive with its own independent popular mandate is a disaster waiting to happen, especially when the path to impeachment is so arduous. Even worse is the fact that there is no provision for a special replacement election, making it virtually impossible to remove an entire administration.

The parliamentary model, where the executive is a creature of the legislature, is the solution to this well-known problem. Any government that does not maintain the confidence of the majority of the legislative can be removed through a simple vote, and elections can generally be called at any time. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to imagine the US heading in a more parliamentary direction, due to the huge obstacles to amending the constitution — we can’t even get rid of the Electoral College, for God’s sake! — and so the most likely constitutional evolution will be to continue along our current path toward more and more dictatorial power for the president.

Trump’s foolishness and incompetence might slow that progress, just as Nixon’s betrayal of trust did, but we cannot realistically expect that even the successful removal or resignation of Trump would lead to a full reversal. If anything, his unique personal qualities could further reinforce the legitimacy of the presidential regime as such, as long as a “normal” candidate occupies the office.

Social theory, race, and theology

A basic principle of the social sciences is that systemic effects have systemic causes. A classic example is Durkheim’s Suicide, where he argues that none of the individual reasons that people choose to take their own lives can account for the suicide rate in a given society — only an analysis of the general shape of those societies can explain a fundamentally social fact like the suicide rate.

There is a conservative form of faux-social science, of which David Brooks is probably the most self-conscious adherent. It tries to appear that it has tracked down systemic causes for the systemic effects it bemoans, but in reality it is still performing a fundamentally individualistic analysis. Social forces mutate into social trends, usually of a highly moralistic bent. Hence a Brooksian analysis of suicide rates might say that people are becoming less optimistic, more despairing, less serious about their duties to others, etc., etc.

This looks like a social cause because it’s a generalization about a lot of people. But if we ask David Brooks what caused people to become less optimistic, etc., in the last analysis all he can say is that a critical mass of people up and decided to stop being optimistic. And how do we solve this problem? Through moral exhortation that will make people up and decide to have hope again. Continue reading “Social theory, race, and theology”