GO, ELIZABETH, GO!


With this appearance on CNBC last week, the Legend of Elizabeth Warren continues. Look how she shoots down these two smart-alecks who dare come at her armed with nothing more than some producers’ notes and a little cocktail party conversation. “No!” Elizabeth says, and they are gobsmacked. You know, I love Hilary Clinton, but whenever Elizabeth decides to run for president, I’m her guy.

HOW GOOD DO WE WANT OUR POLICEMEN TO BE?

(This piece originally appeared on washingtonmonthly.com on July 7th.)

It seems to me that the two potentially big outrage stories of the spring—the politicized IRS story and the data-mad NSA story—now have two things in common. First, they have both petered out as little or no evidence of nefarious activity has been discovered. Second, both pose the question, How good do we want our policemen to be?

It is true that anything having to do with the IRS gives me a bit of vertigo (sometimes I have to take a pill just to type the word `first’), so it’s possible I have missed something, but it seems to me that all the IRS did was try to make sense of a massive number of new filings involving highly technical questions, all done in order to make sure that people pay a Baby Bear amount of taxes—not too little, not too much, but just the right amount. Perhaps their approaches might leave something to be desired, but it seems to me that at worst, the IRS was guilty of a kind of profiling (examining every filing that featured certain terms), or, at best, using search techniques that seem highly prized in all sorts of new media and commercial ventures. The surest sign that there is little to this story is the great big boost the investigation received when they discovered IRS workers spent government money on conferences where they did Star Trek skits. At last, here was a boondoggle we could understand!
Just as the IRS now has the technological capacity to more efficiently identify filings for scrutiny (we’re still waiting to see if the scrutiny went too far), we see that the NSA has the capacity to gather tremendous amounts of information about us, although there is the constant suspicion that what they do with it is illegitimate. But some of this is just discomfort with something that’s new. Is the government prying? The government knows who I call, but so do other people—anybody around me when I dial, the person I’ve called, people sitting around that person, people who see my logs. The government may or may not know what I buy, but again, so does the clerk, the shopkeeper, my neighbor standing with me on line. What freaks us out is the realization that some distant, omnipotent power has interest in these trivialities, and can somehow learn something larger about ourselves from this data.

How efficient do we want out cops to be? We like seeing a cop on the beat, but we might have mixed feelings about CCTV. But what’s the real difference? We want an IRS that can correctly collect taxes, but we want them to be more vigilant about collecting our neighbor’s taxes than our own. We want the NSA to interrupt terror plots, but we’re worried that they know I phone my bookie more than I call my sister. The outrage, it seems, comes mostly from ignorance—not really knowing what these agencies are capable of, not really knowing if there is sufficient supervision, and mostly, not really knowing how good we want our policemen to be. Efficiency has killed privacy, and it really bothers us that we don’t really miss it, and don’t know if we should.

EDWARD SNOWDEN, MAN WITHOUT A COUNTRY

(This first appeared on washingtonmonthly.com on July 6th.)

man012626We woke this morning to find that Edward Snowden (Mr. Around the World in Rrrrrrrrrrr! [sound of a screeching stop]) has been offered asylum first in Venezuela, and then in Nicaragua. Perhaps the only person entirely happy about this result may be John Logan, author of the next two James Bond films, who may now be inspired to include a scene of a world-famous leaker meeting an untimely fate at the end of bejeweled thong on the sun-struck beaches of Playa El Agua.

If Snowden can make his way to the Americas (hardly a given), we may learn the answer to one of the burning questions of the moment: what have you been doing all day, Ed? The possibilities of his treatment at Sheremetyevo airport range from detention-lite to a pleasant sterility, the sort of environment that George Clooney might have appreciated in Up in the Air. After almost two weeks, one might expect Snowden to have cleaned up his email folder, finished everything he’s downloaded to his e-reader, and finally got his fill of Diamond Mine.

Should he be scrounging for something else to read, he could do worse than to locate The Man Without A Country, a short story that was published in The Atlantic in December 1863. Written by Edward Everett Hale, the author and clergyman (and not his uncle Edward Everett, the author and orator, or Edward Everett Horton, the comic actor), The Man Without a Country tells the story of a young Army lieutenant Philip Nolan, who becomes friends with the nefarious Aaron Burr. When Burr is indicted for treason for ham-handedly trying to seize part of the Louisiana Territory for himself, Nolan is tried for treason, During the proceedings, he loses his temper, and renounces America. “I wish I may never hear of the United States again!” he shouts, and the judge sentences Nolan to his wish: he is to spend the rest of his life aboard United States Navy warships, in exile, with no right ever again to set foot on U.S. soil, and with explicit orders that no one shall ever mention his country to him again.

And so it happens. Nolan spends approximately fifty years aboard various vessels, never allowed to return to US soil. No one is allowed to speak to him about the United States, nor is he allowed to read anything about the country. Over the years, he repents his angry comments, and one day advices a young sailor to avoid his mistake: “Remember, boy, that behind all these men … behind officers and government, and people even, there is the Country Herself, your Country, and that you belong to her as you belong to your own mother. Stand by her, boy, as you would stand by your mother … !” At the end of the story, a dying Nolan shows invites an officer named Danforth to his room. It has become a patriotic shrine, with a flag, pictures of George Washington and a bald eagle. Danforth tells Nolan everything that happened to America since his sentence was imposed; the narrator confesses, however, that “I could not make up my mouth to tell him a word about this infernal rebellion,’’—the Civil War. When Nolan is found dead later that day, they find that he has written his own epitaph:

In memory of PHILIP NOLAN, Lieutenant in the army of the United States. He loved his country as no other man has loved her; but no man deserved less at her hands

Treacly stuff, in a way, yet quite moving in its sentimental power. The story was a Civil War story, designed to use sentiment and argument to show what the country as a whole, as opposed to the individual states, had achieved. I’d love to hear what Snowden thinks of the tale a few years from now, although generally speaking, those who possess the audacity to commit a great deed seldom have the audacity to reconsider it.

HEAR, HEAR, WIESELTIER!

leonwieseltierAt some point in high school, in one of those endless bifurcations people come up with to make sense of society, I realized that all the smart guys at my school could be divided up into two categories–word guys and numbers guys. Both word guys and numbers guys could get good grades in both the word subjects (English, history, social studies, etc.( and numbers subjects (math and science) but all of us had a more natural affinity for one or the other. And that was fine. Word guys had their domain, and numbers guys had theirs. Peace reigned.

Some years ago, I realized that the number guys had taken over. Between computers, the domination of market ideology in business, the reduction of electoral politics to statistical analyses, even the way saberemetrics has taken over sports, almost everything has been dominated by numbers. Everyone is seeking alpha. Or the lowest common denominator. Or alpha through the lowest common denominator. That is happening more and more.

Anyway, for me, the peace of high school had been shattered. My domain was in ruins. And I didn’t know quite how to express what had happened.

But thank goodness, Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, has captured the moment, with pith and brilliance. Last month Wieseltier gave a speech at the Brandeis commencement, and damn if he didn’t make sense of everything. His speech is so amazing that I quote it in full:

Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were cherished less, and has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were needed more? I am genuinely honored to be addressing you this morning, because in recent years I have come to regard a commitment to the humanities as nothing less than an act of intellectual defiance, of cultural dissidence.

For decades now in America we have been witnessing a steady and sickening denigration of humanistic understanding and humanistic method. We live in a society inebriated by technology, and happily, even giddily governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency, and convenience. The technological mentality that has become the American worldview instructs us to prefer practical questions to questions of meaning – to ask of things not if they are true or false, or good or evil, but how they work. Our reason has become an instrumental reason, and is no longer the reason of the philosophers, with its ancient magnitude of intellectual ambition, its belief that the proper subjects of human thought are the largest subjects, and that the mind, in one way or another, can penetrate to the very principles of natural life and human life. Philosophy itself has shrunk under the influence of our weakness for instrumentality – modern American philosophy was in fact one of the causes of that weakness — and generally it, too, prefers to tinker and to tweak.

The machines to which we have become enslaved, all of them quite astonishing, represent the greatest assault on human attention ever devised: they are engines of mental and spiritual dispersal, which make us wider only by making us less deep. There are thinkers, reputable ones if you can believe it, who proclaim that the exponential growth in computational ability will soon take us beyond the finitude of our bodies and our minds so that, as one of them puts it, there will no longer be any difference between human and machine. La Mettrie lives in Silicon Valley. This, of course, is not an apotheosis of the human but an abolition of the human; but Google is very excited by it.

In the digital universe, knowledge is reduced to the status of information. Who will any longer remember that knowledge is to information as art is to kitsch-–that information is the most inferior kind of knowledge, because it is the most external? A great Jewish thinker of the early Middle Ages wondered why God, if He wanted us to know the truth about everything, did not simply tell us the truth about everything. His wise answer was that if we were merely told what we need to know, we would not, strictly speaking, know it. Knowledge can be acquired only over time and only by method. And the devices that we carry like addicts in our hands are disfiguring our mental lives also in other ways: for example, they generate a hitherto unimaginable number of numbers, numbers about everything under the sun, and so they are transforming us into a culture of data, into a cult of data, in which no human activity and no human expression is immune to quantification, in which happiness is a fit subject for economists, in which the ordeals of the human heart are inappropriately translated into mathematical expressions, leaving us with new illusions of clarity and new illusions of control.

Our glittering age of technologism is also a glittering age of scientism. Scientism is not the same thing as science. Science is a blessing, but scientism is a curse. Science, I mean what practicing scientists actually do, is acutely and admirably aware of its limits, and humbly admits to the provisional character of its conclusions; but scientism is dogmatic, and peddles certainties. It is always at the ready with the solution to every problem, because it believes that the solution to every problem is a scientific one, and so it gives scientific answers to non-scientific questions. But even the question of the place of science in human existence is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical, which is to say, a humanistic,

Owing to its preference for totalistic explanation, scientism transforms science into an ideology, which is of course a betrayal of the experimental and empirical spirit. There is no perplexity of human emotion or human behavior that these days is not accounted for genetically or in the cocksure terms of evolutionary biology. It is true that the selfish gene has lately been replaced by the altruistic gene, which is lovelier, but it is still the gene that tyrannically rules. Liberal scientism should be no more philosophically attractive to us than conservative scientism, insofar as it, too, arrogantly reduces all the realms that we inhabit to a single realm, and tempts us into the belief that the epistemological eschaton has finally arrived, and at last we know what we need to know to manipulate human affairs wisely. This belief is invariably false and occasionally disastrous. We are becoming ignorant of ignorance.

So there is no task more urgent in American intellectual life at this hour than to offer some resistance to the twin imperialisms of science and technology, and to recover the old distinction — once bitterly contested, then generally accepted, now almost completely forgotten – between the study of nature and the study of man. As Bernard Williams once remarked, “’humanity’ is a name not merely for a species but also for a quality.” You who have elected to devote yourselves to the study of literature and languages and art and music and philosophy and religion and history — you are the stewards of that quality. You are the resistance. You have had the effrontery to choose interpretation over calculation, and to recognize that calculation cannot provide an accurate picture, or a profound picture, or a whole picture, of self-interpreting beings such as ourselves; and I commend you for it.

Do not believe the rumors of the obsolescence of your path. If Proust was a neuroscientist, then you have no urgent need of neuroscience, because you have Proust. If Jane Austen was a game theorist, then you have no reason to defect to game theory, because you have Austen. There is no greater bulwark against the twittering acceleration of American consciousness than the encounter with a work of art, and the experience of a text or an image. You are the representatives, the saving remnants, of that encounter and that experience, and of the serious study of that encounter and that experience – which is to say, you are the counterculture. Perhaps culture is now the counterculture.

So keep your heads. Do not waver. Be very proud. Use the new technologies for the old purposes. Do not be rattled by numbers, which will never be the springs of wisdom. In upholding the humanities, you uphold the honor of a civilization that was founded upon the quest for the true and the good and the beautiful. For as long as we are thinking and feeling creatures, creatures who love and imagine and suffer and die, the humanities will never be dispensable. From this day forward, then, act as if you are indispensable to your society, because – whether it knows it or not – you are. Congratulations.

Yes, Leon! I am with you completely! To the barricades!

GOOD NEWS–THE WAR IS OVERISH

(This article first appeared on the site of The Washington Monthly on May 26, 2013.)

I liked what President Obama said in his national security speech the other day. I thought it was amazingly courageous for him to talk in terms of ending the war on terror, if for no other reason than that it could literally blow up in his face. It’s so much easier and expedient to do what Bush and Cheney did, and just frighten everyone out of his wits.

I’m glad he decided to put more limits on the use of drones, without barring their use altogether. Terrorism was so frightening because of its asymmetrical effectiveness; all our troops and tanks couldn’t defend against a guy and a bomb. Drones are an effective antidote: we don’t have to deploy 50,000 troops, we don’t have to kill thousands of civilians, we don’t have to smash millions of dollars worth of infrastructure, we don’t end up with thousands of ex-soldiers with PSDT abecoming alcoholics and abusing their wives, we don’t have to stand in endless lines at airports and let TSA agents pat down grandma’s breasts; we just deprive the leadership of safety. It’s necessary that we be careful in its use; it’s essential that we do not rely on it casually. But we should be proud that our military has found a way to protect us, and to bring an end to the war on terror.

I’m also glad that the president spoke up about closing Guantánamo. Every hour that it remains open adds to our shame. Some kind of embarrassing overreaction has happened every time we suffer a national freak out—the Palmer Raids, the internment of the Japanese, McCarthyism, and now Guantánamo. We tell ourselves that our fear justifies the abrogation of our very best values, and off we go, trampling on people. Do you have any doubt that our grandchildren will shake their head in embarrassment at our actions? I don’t. Will they repeat our mistakes when they have a freak-out moment of their own? God, I hope not.

THE USE AND ABUSE OF FREEDOM

(This article first appeared on the site of The Washington Monthly on May 26, 2013.)

Last week David Brooks had an interesting column about a couple of studies that surveyed key words in a body of writings. (No, we’re not talking about tax examiners looking for Tea Party among applications.) He describes the “two elements” that he found:

“The first element in this story is rising individualism. A study by Jean M. Twenge, W. Keith Campbell and Brittany Gentile found that between 1960 and 2008 individualistic words and phrases increasingly overshadowed communal words and phrases. That is to say, over those 48 years, words and phrases like “personalized,” “self,” “standout,” “unique,” “I come first” and “I can do it myself” were used more frequently. Communal words and phrases like “community,” “collective,” “tribe,” “share,” “united,” “band together” and “common good” receded.

“The second element of the story is demoralization. A study by Pelin Kesebir and Selin Kesebir found that general moral terms like “virtue,” “decency” and “conscience” were used less frequently over the course of the 20th century. Words associated with moral excellence, like “honesty,” “patience” and “compassion” were used much less frequently. The Kesebirs identified 50 words associated with moral virtue and found that 74 percent were used less frequently as the century progressed. Certain types of virtues were especially hard hit. Usage of courage words like “bravery” and “fortitude” fell by 66 percent. Usage of gratitude words like “thankfulness” and “appreciation” dropped by 49 percent. ”

The question I have—and would have tried to answer, had not my attempts to find these studies through google led me to data bases that thwarted my efforts to access the pieces—is this: how did the word `freedom’ do?

One of the biggest changes in my adult life is what has happened to freedom, not just as a word, but as a value. It is, it seems to me, the only value Americans put much stock in. Equality, in which immigrants and labor unions invested so much energy and support and devotion during the first part of the 20th century, now seems a hostage of identity group politics. Freedom is it—it’s what we appeal to for everything, from gay marriage to Wall Street shortcuts to environmental pollution to smoking pot to war (Free Kuwait! Iraqi freedom!) These are the years of freedom triumphant, and boy, if anything explains the mess we’re in, it’s freedom. Try arguing for something in terms of Community, or Sacrifice. Go to Congress and make a case for Majority Rule, and you’ll get an earful from Ted Cruz and Rand Paul about the freedom of the minority to thwart the majority.

More than anyone, Ronald Reagan put us on this path. I can’t imagine a figure who would be able to get us to rebalance our values.

APPLE: LIVING THE LIE

This was first published on The Washington Monthly’s site on May 25, 2013.

I have three laws of politics. I don’t know if they explain everything, but they often explain something, and that’s enough for me.

Malanowski’s First Law of Politics is that the rich and powerful will always act in their own self interest.

Malanowski’s Second Law is that the rich and powerful will then get the rest of us to act in their interest as well, usually by making us believe that we hold this interest in common.

Malanowski’s Third Law is that when the rest of us figure out ways to act in our own self-interests, the rich and powerful are likely to outlaw whatever we’ve come up with.

These laws came to mind this week when reading about the appearance of Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. The Senators—a couple of them, anyway—wanted to hear about how Apple avoids paying so much tax. Cook, for his part, wanted to talk about how Apple actually pays so much tax.

As Floyd Norris explained in the Times, “What Apple did was transfer rights to its intellectual property to a subsidiary that was incorporated in Ireland — and therefore not subject to immediate United States taxation — but managed in California. Under Irish law, that freed the subsidiary from Irish taxation.”

In other word, Apple uses an artificial company to avoid taxes. Apple, in its defense, points out that this Irish subsidiary has rights to the company’s patents and trademarks in Asia, Africa and Europe, but not in North or South America. “Apple kept those rights in its United States operation,” says Norris, “It thus appears to pay more United States taxes than it could have.” So Apple uses sham company—and is a hero.

“Apple doesn’t use gimmicks,” Cook argued. He’s right, and that’s just the point. He doesn’t have to use gimmicks. The whole system has been gimmicked for him.

Were you or I ham-handed enough to invent something to avoid paying taxes—invent a child say, or identify a Irish business associate as a dependent—we would face prosecution. Apple sets up an Irish front, and it enjoys the support of legislators, judges, tax attorneys, accountants, and other high-minded people everywhere. Apple isn’t rigging the game; it’s playing a game that has been rigged for them—and against the broad middle class.

THE GREAT INSECURITY

Meet The PressIn the Times a couple of weeks ago, Thomas L. Friedman wrote one of the most interesting, alarming, and possibly prophetic pieces I have read this century. Let me quote it at length:

“It’s hard to have a conversation today with any worker, teacher, student or boss who doesn’t tell you some version of this: More things seem to be changing in my world than ever before, but I can’t quite put my finger on it, let alone know how to adapt. So let me try to put my finger on it: We now live in a 401(k) world — a world of defined contributions, not defined benefits — where everyone needs to pass the bar exam and no one can escape the most e-mailed list.

“Here is what I mean: Something really big happened in the world’s wiring in the last decade, but it was obscured by the financial crisis and post-9/11. We went from a connected world to a hyperconnected world. I’m always struck that Facebook, Twitter, 4G, iPhones, iPads, high-speech broadband, ubiquitous wireless and Web-enabled cellphones, the cloud, Big Data, cellphone apps and Skype did not exist or were in their infancy a decade ago when I wrote a book called The World Is Flat. All of that came since then, and the combination of these tools of connectivity and creativity has created a global education, commercial, communication and innovation platform on which more people can start stuff, collaborate on stuff, learn stuff, make stuff (and destroy stuff) with more other people than ever before.
“What’s exciting is that this platform empowers individuals to access learning, retrain, engage in commerce, seek or advertise a job, invent, invest and crowd source — all online. But this huge expansion in an individual’s ability to do all these things comes with one big difference: more now rests on you.

“If you are self-motivated, wow, this world is tailored for you. The boundaries are all gone. But if you’re not self-motivated, this world will be a challenge because the walls, ceilings and floors that protected people are also disappearing. That is what I mean when I say “it is a 401(k) world.” Government will do less for you. Companies will do less for you. Unions can do less for you. There will be fewer limits, but also fewer guarantees. Your specific contribution will define your specific benefits much more. Just showing up will not cut it. ‘’

There is so much about this column that struck me at the core. I do feel that the world is changing far beyond my understanding. It is astonishing that the i-Phone and Facebook and so on have become so amazingly significant in so short a time. I find it bewildering that Twitter has been enthusiastically adopted by so many people; to me, it is like a newfangled dance whose steps I cannot master, choreographed to music I just can’t stand. By extension, it is also amazing that so many things that were once significant are fading away. I’m talking about books, and newspapers, and cinema, but more generally, the idea of cooperation—-cooperation in government, yes, but cooperation in the workplace. The idea that “we’re all in this together’’ seems to mean less, and less, and less.

More now rests on you. This is a frightening thought. The major reason is that I know how very limited I am. However good my best is, I know I am not at my best every day. And however good my average performance is, I know I am not average every day. In the world I lived in most of my life, I was confident that if I hit for a high average, my company would carry me through the rest. If I was in a slump, or ill, or on vacation (there’s a long-gone idea), somebody else at my magazine would be brilliant that week or month, and I would be supportive, and encouraging, and find some other way to contribute as I concentrated on the next cycle. Working in a group, valuing the group—that was important. Apparently that’s not so today.

Think about this quote from Friedman: “What’s exciting is that this platform empowers individuals to access learning, retrain, engage in commerce, seek or advertise a job, invent, invest and crowd source — all online.’’ Does it allow someone to just work? I’m not so sure; I don’t think Friedman is sure. But not everyone wants to live the thrillingly unstable world of the freelancer—going from gig to gig, bobbing along in the current, flush when the money is in and scrimping when it stops. Most people don’t want that. They want a job, a house, health insurance, reasonable security. We’re seeing a world that is being divided between the secure and the insecure, and between those who are insecure and are fine with it, and those who are not. Friedman, a man who is personally very secure, thinks the insecurity is great. I don’t. I see people buying guns and gold, and getting it while they can.

Friedman finds the “more rests on you’’ society exciting. I think it’s scary. It’s a return toLeviathan_by_Thomas_Hobbes Hobbes’ state of nature. It is a return to where there is a war of all against all. “”In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently, not culture of the earth, no navigation, nor the use of commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Hyperbolic on my part? The Tsarnaev brothers were recently empowered to access learning online. How exciting was that?

There is a fast-moving kleptopoly that is taking over the world, taking ownership of things that we don’t even necessarily think of as ownable. It’s like when the European colonists came to America and took ownership of a continent whose inhabitants never thought of ownability. Napster just stole the ability of artists to control the sale of their music. Google now controls vast amounts of the world’s public domain books. Some drug company is trying to patent the human genome! When people talk about the exciting world of driverless cars and trucks that just around the corner, well, Brother and Sister Teamster, say goodbye to your job. When people talk about the exciting world of online education, they are actually talking about eliminating and/or cheapening teachers’ jobs.

It’s not that I begrudge the rulers of the universe their cut. Hardly; as Jesus might have said, the rich with you. But for most of my life, the rich took their cut and allowed the rest to dribble down, sustaining the poor and rewarding the rest of us for our industry and bidability. But then came Reagan and Greenspan, and the dogma of the free market. Then came Milken and the takeover artists, who forced business owners to squeeze labor and cut excess and maximize the shareholders’ end. So the rich can keep becoming richer. In April, the Pew Research Center found that from 2009 to 2011, the richest 7% of Americans saw their net worth climb an average $697,651 — equal to a 28% gain—while the rest of the country saw their net worth drop an average $6,079, the equivalent of a 4% loss. The share of wealth held by the top 7% rose to 63% in 2011, up from 56% in 2009. Pew said this disparity is a result of stocks and bonds rallying over these years, while the housing market remained flat.

You have to believe that years from now, this period may be perceived as The Great Digital Con, when fortunes were yanked away, and the moral basis of society was fundamentally altered for the worse. And Thomas Friedman stands to be remembered as its visionary apologist.

I’d be happier with the Leviathan.