an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘fourth estate

on the US political & social system in crisis: 1 – the illusory national superiority effect and limits on democracy

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an interesting partial insight from the days before modern democracies – and emanating from my philosophical homeland

Canto: So we’ve sort of promised not to talk so much about Trump, but let’s admit it, we’re still watching with a fair degree of obsession this slow-motion train wreck which might only get uglier and more damaging as the months roll on…

Jacinta: Well, let’s try to take a wider view, and consider how the USA got to this pass, which means examining its whole political/social system, since so many of its own pundits, IMHO, are infected by the strange disease known as American jingoism, and are expressing dismay about how the ‘world’s greatest democracy’, ‘the leader of the free world’, and the ‘model that the world looks to’, etc, should have come to this.

Canto: So they’re not fit to judge their own system?

Jacinta: Well, we have solid psychological evidence that individuals, for good reason, take a slightly rosier-than-true view about how attractive they are, how competent they are in various fields of endeavour, how generous they are, and so forth – it’s called the illusory superiority effect – and it doesn’t seem to me unreasonable that a lot of people, probably a majority, take a similar view of their nation. So it’s generally a better idea, for nations as well as for people, to listen to what others say about them, or simply to observe or monitor their actual behaviour, and make comparative and quantitative analyses.

Canto: There’s also another effect we’ve talked about, which should have a name, but doesn’t. ‘Might is right’ comes close, but doesn’t quite capture it methinks. It’s that sense felt throughout history by every powerful state – that their military-industrial power confers moral authority and a sort of natural leadership, as in ‘the world’s police officer’.

Jacinta: Absolutely, there should be a name for that fallacy, and there probably is, but in this discussion I want us to focus entirely on the USA’s domestic policies and its political system as it effects its own people.

Canto: So that’s where the OECD’s ‘Better Life Index’ (BLI) comes in.

Jacinta: Yes, I’ve talked about quantitative analysis, and I want to find as much quantitative analysis as we can to compare the best countries on the globe in terms of a variety of parameters. I’m hoping to find more than just the BLI figures, because as with the best science we need different teams to conduct studies that might confirm or disconfirm, using different methodologies, so that we can get a deeper and more complex picture.

Canto: But of course the BLI is itself quite complex. It analyses nations in terms of 11 different ‘dimensions’ – housing, jobs, income, community, education, environment, civic engagement, health, life satisfaction, safety, and work-life balance. The intention is to tweak these dimensions and add new ones if necessary over time. For instance there used to be a dimension called ‘governance’, which would’ve been useful for examining the USA as it currently stands, but that has been changed to ‘civic engagement’, which is more individual-focused.

Jacinta: Yes, and we may go into a little more detail about those dimensions, and into the OECD’s methodology, a bit later, but for now let’s look at results. The first BLI was produced in 2011, and it sought to measure quality of life in 35 Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries and 6 ‘partner countries’ – though only 38 countries are presented in the latest BLI ratings for some reason. It’s been regularly seeking to expand its membership. The latest BLI is from 2017 and In those ratings, Australia, where we are, is ranked third, behind Norway and Denmark. Last year, Australia was ranked second, and the year before that, first, so something’s going wrong.

Canto: I believe it’s in the dimensions of education and environment that we’re slipping up.

Jacinta: Meanwhile, the USA ranks eighth, moving up from ninth the previous year. Other western countries ahead of it, besides Norway, Denmark and Australia, are Sweden,Canada, Switzerland and Iceland.

Canto: So the USA isn’t doing badly at all, it just can’t call itself the best in the world, according to these criteria. So let’s look at individual dimensions, such as civic engagement, since we want to look at America’s political system.

Jacinta: Well that dimension is supposed to look at citizens’ involvement in democracy, so they’re sort of assuming that all these countries are democratic. The USA comes off well here, in third place, though I’m rather surprised to find that Australia is solidly in top spot in this field. Where the USA fares worst is in community (23rd), in work-life balance (30th, but Australia comes in at 31st) and safety (22nd, but Australia comes 26th!).

Canto: Interesting – the safety dimension looks at assault and murder rates, so for all the school shooting tragedies and gun violence and the attendant publicity, the USA is safer, overall than Australia. That seems incredible. Maybe we should look more carefully at this methodology. Where do they get their stats from?

Jacinta: That would take time to look into. But just taking this on face value, it provides a corrective to many assumptions, positive or negative, we make about the USA. Essentially though, I just just wanted to use the BLI to point out that the rhetoric about the USA as the greatest democracy – or simply the greatest nation –  should be taken with a heap of salt. And of course there are other surveys of ‘best countries’, such as the US News Best Countries survey, which currently ranks the USA in eighth position (the same as the BLI), behind Switzerland, Canada, Germany,  the UK, Japan, Sweden and Australia (a completely different grouping from the BLI – Norway doesn’t even get a mention). This is supposedly based on a ‘variety of metrics’ which it would be impossible to assess here.

Canto: And also, as you’ve mentioned, it’s not just about democracy. One thing I’ve noticed about the liberal pundits on CNN and MSNBC. They’re always talking about the free press and an independent judiciary as pillars of democracy, under threat from the current bullshitter in their china shop. An independent fourth estate and judiciary are pillars all right but not of democracy. In fact they’re bulwarks against the ever-present threat of democracy and the demagogues that take advantage of that flawed but best-of-a-bad-lot political system. That’s to say, they’re part of what Popper termed an ‘open society’ – and a thoroughly elitist part. This is the point that needs constantly to be made – democracy is dodgy as, but no better political system has ever been invented. However, we don’t practice anything like pure democracy, even setting aside the meritocratic institutions like the judiciary and the fourth estate, which hedge it around. Under the westminster system – used by every English-speaking democracy apart from the US – we have a parliament with more power than the US Congress, a judiciary which is generally more independent than that in the US, and a purely titular head of state instead of the all-too-powerful one sanctioned by the US system. There are no veto powers or pardoning powers to speak of, and nobody within that system ever imagines that they’re above the law in any sense whatever. We don’t have impeachment, which seems to me a disastrous political tool, and we tend to eschew the high-falutin term ‘indictment’, we prefer to just charge people with criminal activity – a far more levelling circumstance.

Jacinta: And it also isn’t a pure democracy in that we don’t just vote for anyone in the Westminster system. We vote for parties, with the occasional independent, who of course will never be able to form a government but might be able to curb some government policy. And the parties select candidates based on merit, more or less. Candidates are vetted, to some degree, even if it’s sometimes a bit ad hoc. Again, something of a meritocracy, an element of elitism.

Canto: And I should also mention, since we’re science advocates, that another thoroughly elitist component of an open, civilised society is an independent and flourishing science and technology sector. Climate science, for example, should be as free from politics as it’s possible to make it, and there certainly should be nothing democratic about it. If we based our science on popular vote, civilisation would never have taken off.

Jacinta: Okay, so we’ve laid some of the foundation for our critique of the US political and social system, next we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of why the US is currently in the confrontational mess that it’s in and what might be done, if anything to fix the problem. We’ll bring to the issues all the ambition and arrogance we can muster. It should be fun.

Written by stewart henderson

July 2, 2018 at 11:13 am

what to do with a serious problem like Trump: part two

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So what damage is Trump doing to the US political system? He sets an example of deceit, disrespect, adversarialism and other negative qualities. He highlights these sorts of qualities as a route to worldly success. He undermines all the essential institutions of western democracy, especially an independent press and judiciary. His belligerence and lack of co-operation with judicial authorities may lead to further damage, including serious civil unrest, of a kind not seen in the USA for decades, or longer. We’ll see what happens.

So that is the problem of Trump, as all reasonable people see it. Having said that, I have some optimistic and some pessimistic comments to add.

I should start with the pessimistic stuff, so that I can end on a positive note.

Trump is the proverbial bull in a china shop. What do we do when we find a bull in a china shop, blundering about, smashing up everything, just being a bull? We take steps to get him out of there, pronto. And being enlightened souls, we don’t want to punish him for being what he can’t help being. A tranquilising dart might be the best answer, though this may make him thrash about all the more, at least for a time. We try to protect the shop as best we can, knowing that some damage will be inevitable.

However, Trump is a bull with friends and enablers, some of whom see him as a mighty stallion trampling over the spoils of the undeserving, while others see him as, for various reasons, a most useful bull. Still others see him as pure entertainment. They’re prepared to fight to prevent this bull from being removed from this china shop…

That’s roughly the present situation. As I’ve stated before, Trump is no Nixon, he won’t go quietly. He would rather barricade himself in the White House than resign. He would argue that a sitting President can’t be charged, he would refuse to co-operate with impeachment proceedings, and this would create a situation far worse than a constitutional crisis.

That’s the problem, the pessimistic stuff, and frankly I’ve no idea how this will be resolved. The worst case scenario is serious civil strife, of a kind not seen on American soil since the civil war, and Trump being Trump, I honestly can’t see a best case scenario that doesn’t involve violence of some kind, hopefully only to Trump himself, so as to prise him out of office. Given that scenario, tranquilising mightn’t be such a bad idea.

With that out of the way, let’s turn to the optimistic stuff, the silver lining, the lessons learned. Clearly, post-Trump, the American political system needs some restructuring, just as a town might do after being severely damaged by an unanticipated storm, one that could always strike again.

Trump has revealed serious failings in political and judicial structures. In fact he’s been revealing them for decades, from what I’ve gathered, as he has emerged largely unscathed from a lifetime of extortion, standover tactics, unpaid debts and dishonest deals and enterprises. He has surrounded himself with similarly shady characters; fixers, mobsters, goons and corruption merchants of all stripes. His success mirrors the failures of law and order in ways that I’m not equipped to deconstruct, but it’s surely true that these are failures.

Trump’s list of dodgy deals and litigations should have excluded him from candidature for high office, but there seems to be very little vetting for the position of President, something which seems to be a matter of pride in some circles. You don’t want just anyone to become your head of state, and democracy, to give away a nasty but surely open secret, doesn’t guarantee the best leadership. That is why the separation of powers is so important.

So these are two areas that need some work, post-Trump; tighter rules and vetting for Presidential and other political candidature, and a tightening and bolstering of the separation of powers. I would also like to see white-collar crime pursued far more vigorously, but again I’m not equipped to go into detail on this. Another area of concern in the light of Trump’s assaults is the media and its protection. It would be hard to quantify the damage Trump has done in this area with his ‘fake news’ meme. Lying is, of course, not a crime, or we would all be criminals, but the massively irresponsible behaviour of a head of state who lies about virtually everything, and who regularly denigrates and abuses those who speak obvious truths to power – a major media role – shouldn’t go unpunished. The media should be given greater legal means to fight back against this denigration. Getting more into the detail – producing tax returns should be absolutely mandatory for all political candidates, with no exceptions and strictly enforced, and the ’emoluments clause’ in the constitution, an out-dated piece of verbiage describing gifts from members of the nobility, should be upgraded and strengthened to prohibit those in high office to profit directly from their position.

On the separation of powers, so regularly attacked by Trump out of wilful, self-serving interest: many are unaware that this separation serves the important purpose of limiting democracy. Limiting demagoguery in this case. Among the checks and balances which seek to defuse the danger of a directly elected President, beholden to no party or principle, are an independent judiciary, an independent fourth estate, and a system of independent or bipartisan vetting of those nominated by the President for such Level One positions as Secretary of State. This separation of powers needs to be strictly adhered to and supported by law to the extent that regular attempts to undermine this separation, as is practiced by this President, should be seen as obstructing the rule of law and dealt with severely.

There need to be other checks and balances of course – checks on the media itself and on such organisations as the Department of Justice, which according to Alan Dershowitz and others beside the President, is pursuing Trump beyond the scope of its mandate. I’m not sufficiently au fait with these checks, which should of course include defamation laws to protect public personae, to make effective comment, but the scope of the Mueller enquiry is a matter of public record. There is no doubt that the Mueller enquiry has been given wide powers, but there is also no doubt that Russian interference in the 2016 election was considerable, and the indictments of many Russian citizens and entities as a result of the probe have supported this. There is also no doubt that Trump’s businesses in recent years have been linked to Russian oligarchs, as freely admitted by Donald Trump Jr, and that Trump has been extremely reluctant to make accusations against Russia and its dictator in light of clear evidence of interference which benefitted his Presidential bid. It’s highly likely that the probe has found clear evidence of conspiracy with a foreign power during the 2016 elections, to say nothing of obstruction of justice in the ousting of James Cohen and possibly also Andrew McCabe. The constant denigration of the Department of Justice and the FBI by the current President is of course unprecedented, and will require, I think, unprecedented responses in order to preserve and reinforce the separation of powers and to ensure that lawyers, judges and law enforcement officers can do their jobs without having to face the kind of treatment meted out to them by the likes of Trump and his enablers.

So, finally, no more from me about Trump, I hope. There are threats and opportunities here. The immediate threat to civil society comes from a bull who won’t go quietly, who will be supported by some powerful allies in defying authority, with possibly disastrous immediate consequences. The opportunity, as always with disasters of this sort, is to improve the political system to ensure that this is the first and last rogue President to disgrace the White House. Good luck with all that.

Written by stewart henderson

May 7, 2018 at 11:57 am