MUSINGS BEYOND THE BUNKER
MUSINGS ON MORALITY, RULES, AGENCY AND TOXICITY
This is a potpourri of musings are about moral issues, the need for rules and issues of reasoning.
1. Kant and morality / The Trolley Problem
2. The importance of agency
3. The need for rules
4. Moral certainty?
5. Confirmation bias
6. Toxicity in our culture
7. The need for rules (part II)
8. It’s tribalism; not ideology
9. The answer is reasoning in middle school debate
THE GOOD OF THE MANY VERSUS THE GOOD OF THE FEW
Several questions arise from this inquiry:
Is it ever okay to sacrifice lives for economic well-being?
What if it’s a million lives? But what if it’s only a dozen?
Is it okay for government (or an individual) to decide to sacrifice lives to save other lives?
We make decisions all the time that have an effect on the lives of others. Cars are not built flawlessly, with each and every safety measure available. Some will die. We have coal burning power plants that allow for our advanced technological society to operate. Some will die of lung disease. We pollute our water and air and warm the earth, knowing that these decisions—all defensible on economic grounds—will lead to the sacrifice of lives.
So what’s different about the pandemic? I think the distinction is that in the ordinary course, a random group, not yet in harm’s way will get in an accident or contract a sickness. We are prepared to care for them when they do. In this case, people are arguing to allow others to get sick in stunningly high numbers, knowing that we don’t have the capacity to care from them once they do. In a car accident or lung disease brought on by pollution, we have the capacity and treatment to care for those who are afflicted. Here, we would be guaranteeing death to a meaningful number of people.
But what if, instead of a million lives, it’s only a dozen. Would we sacrifice a dozen people to right the economy earlier? It seems like it’s worth it—but so long as it’s not our parent, friend, or neighbor. Do we think it is “more” moral to sacrifice only a dozen people, versus a million? Is it okay to condemn 12 people to die, but not 1,000,000? Both are equally immoral, I think.
What would Immanuel Kant have to say about that? (I’m pretty sure I can tell you—Kantian deontology suggests that there is an absolute morality that cannot be violated, e.g., one cannot commit murder). That said, we deal with these trade-offs all the time.
What do you think? Is it even moral for us to contemplate these questions?
THE TROLLEY PROBLEM
All of us are turning around in our minds the advantages and disadvantages of opening the country. When do we do it? And whom do we place at risk? These are not simply practical questions, but moral ones. Viewers of The Good Place, those who took moral philosophy in college, or high school debaters know about the “Trolley Problem.” The basic version of the Trolley Problem is that you are standing at a rail junction. A trolley is rushing toward the junction. The switch is set so that five innocent people tied to the track will die. Would you pull the switch (a passive and indirect act) and divert the train to the other track, where only one innocent person will die? Now, how about if, in order to save five innocent lives, you must affirmatively murder someone? Would you push a fat man off a bridge over the trolley line, preventing the trolley from hitting the five innocent people? In one instance, you are merely triggering a switch to force a trolley a different direction; in the other, you affirmatively must act to kill one person. In both cases, the result is the same. The question in both cases is whether it is ok for you to condemn the innocent person—to save five?
These sorts of cost/benefit analyses are made every day. Is it ever ethical to harm some in order to benefit others? The book Would You Kill the Fat Man?, by David Edmonds, is a great exploration of moral philosophy, starting with various permutations of the trolley problem and moving on from there.
For a good article summarizing the problem (and the book): Clang Went the Trolley
There will be many political, economic and medical decisions that be made in the coming weeks and months. These will have profound impacts on real people, whose lives hang in the balance. They ought not be rushed or politicized and should be considered in light of the best data. Most important, they should be made with the kindest of hearts. Whether our leaders are capable of such nuanced analysis is unclear.
ACTING ON BEHALF OF OTHERS AND THE RESPONSIBILITY OF AGENCY
We rely on people to act on our behalf all the time—from real estate agents to stock brokers to elected representatives. These relationships are critical to the functioning of our society and our economy. Generally, agents have “fiduciary duties” to the principals they represent—in essence, to act in the best interest of another party, even if it might conflict with one’s own interests. But interests of principals and agents are not necessarily aligned. Behavioral economists have noted, for instance, that real estate agents often advise clients to take a lesser price and get the deal closed quickly, rather than holding out for the best offer, since the broker stands not to profit significantly by small movements in price (a $10,000 increase in price nets the listing broker $300 in incremental proceeds, at most, while the principal would net nearly $9,500).
Let me pose two examples of the short-term self-interest of people who should exercise high duties of care having profoundly negative effects on the people whom they should be representing:
THE AGENT/PRINCIPAL DILEMMA WITH LONGER TERM CONSEQUENCES
A good example of agents not acting in the best interest of principals is the securitized loan debacle that contributed to the Global Financial Crisis. Institutional investors purchased packages of various credits that, notwithstanding detailed offering materials warning of potential risks, proved to have much more embedded risk than anyone appreciated. How did these instruments become so risky? Because the folks that were “issuing” the securities were not investing on their own account. Rather, they were in the business of packaging and selling the securities (retaining only a negligible percentage of the risk). Think of it like “hot potato.” The arranger of the loans had to keep them in a pool only long enough to sell them to someone else. Their interest was short term (i.e., just get the sale), while the interest of the purchasers was more long term (i.e., the duration of the underlying loans).
Once the securities were sold, the issuers were off the hook, with no real ongoing responsibility or liability, while the principals/purchasers were left holding the bag. While this time around, these issuers are required to have a greater “stake in the game” post-closing, similar incentives nonetheless have created circumstances that pose similar economic dangers.
HOW THIS PLAYS IN POLITICS
The inherent conflict between those looking to short term performance (“let’s just get the sale”) and long term investors (“I’m stuck with this for a long time”) plays itself out in our current legislative environment.
With our two-year election cycle, everyone is running all the time and representatives’ primary concern is more with the “sizzle” than the “steak.” Their motivation is to produce headlines, get a bunch of interviews on the Sunday morning shows, and win the next election, all while eyeing the next, bigger, electoral prize. Meanwhile, we, the people, are left holding the bag for the long term. In other words, they give us a “new shiny thing” but neglect to tell us how it will be paid for or even conduct the appropriate inquiry as to whether the program will work.
This is why we have pension funds that almost uniformly are underfunded, promising retirement payments that often exceed the public employees’ average salary, why we have a partially built and funded high speed rail in California, we have large infrastructural projects falling into decay, and we have various tax loopholes that make entire industries happy (which they reward with generous contributions to campaigns), all while the long-term economic health of the country is in peril.
So long as our elected representatives aren’t “playing the long game,” Both sides of the aisle seem content to spend and spend, mortgaging our children’s futures, without a care. I’m not sure how we ever balance the budget, much less responsibly grow our economy and care for our fellow-citizens in efficacious ways. Expressed another way, when we elect our representatives, we imbue them with vast powers to act in our best interest. They owe us the two primary duties of any fiduciary—a duty of loyalty and a duty of care. Their loyalty more often is only to their own election prospects. They owe us the obligation of thinking about the long term and not focusing on short term headlines. It’s not working out as planned…
FOLLOWING THE RULES
AND WHAT OF THOSE VIOLATING THE RULES?
I am assuming most of you are following the rules, as virtually every state and country that has looked at this believes we should be doing. That said, we went on a walk in Beverly Hills yesterday and saw many people not wearing municipally mandated masks. As we all know by now, masks primarily are for those around the wearer—and not the wearer. So when they fail to participate, they are openly endangering others.
Are those who don’t wear masks or have chosen to ignore the shelter-in-place rules (particularly those at low risk of contracting the disease, so they have little stake in their actions) committing an immoral act? Are they, by their actions, effectively choosing that others will get sick and some will die?
There is a phenomenon, particularly but not exclusively among the young, that suggests that it’s “no big deal” for them to violate the rules “just this one time” or “just with a few friends.” The problem here, of course, is that if everyone has a few “free exceptions,” the efficacy of the shelter-in-place plan is jeopardized, again risking the lives and health of others. Were it as simple as exposing oneself by smoking, not exercising, or eating donuts for breakfast every day, one would be making a choice, the consequences of which are borne by the actor. Of course I understand that smokers expose others to second-hand smoke and donut aficionados will overburden our health care system, but their actions are choices that do not directly endanger others. In the current environment, what you do affects me and would I do affects you.
WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER
What am I getting at? Really two things:
The cost to society of not doing this far outweighs the costs of doing this
Not participating to the fullest extent one can is immoral
MORAL CERTAINTY AND RIGHT AND WRONG
RIGHT ISN’T NECESSARILY RIGHT…
Ben VandeBunt is one of the smartest guys out there (and not just because he left the practice of law for the more lucrative field of business before I did…). He has made an observation that I think runs to one of the essential truisms of our political and social environment. We all think we’re right. But we may not really know the difference between what’s “right” and what’s “right.” Let me explain…
In English, the word “right” describes both provable facts and things we consider morally right. There is no distinction in the English language. An example of a provable fact is the Pythagorean Theorem, A2 + b2 + c2. Always. There is no debate.
The other sort of “right” is a moral judgment of what is “right,” like “thou shall not steal.” Some may be established moral rights (one can’t steal or kill). Others may be disputed (like “abortion is murder”). Whereas in English there is only one word used for both of these instances of “right,” in Latin and other romance languages there is a difference. The first is “la raison” and the second is “la vertue (in French, la vertu).” [NB: Apologies for mangling Latin and French…as to the French, I should know better…]
In la raison, there is no emotion, no nuance, and no variability. It is always “right.” There is no point arguing for the other side. It is math. Or science. Or statistics. There is proof for the proposition on one side and no proof can be generated for the other.
The second category of “right” are issues that may be moral “certainties” to some, but perhaps not to others. Examples include whether one should or shouldn’t ban abortion, whether or not there should be background checks for guns, or whether one should wear a mask in a pandemic. Sometimes determining “right” is based upon the amount of evidence on one side versus the other. Sometimes it is based upon fact and circumstance. And sometimes, it is based upon competing values. For instance, even though it is “wrong” to kill someone, is it ever “right” to sacrifice one life to save five others (remember the “Trolley Problem”?). These things that are “right” and “wrong” in our minds based upon our personal or group value systems and are not provably right or wrong.
There are some things that are “la vertue” that seem pretty overwhelmingly indisputable, but not quite “la raison,” and yet they are disputed, e.g.:
Climate change is real and affected by mankind
Evolution is real.
Communism is a great ideal but never has worked or will work as a practical economic theory.
Those things that either border on “la raison” due to an overwhelming preponderance of the evidence should seem indisputable and apolitical. But because we are so politicized, we tend to take things that are seemingly factual, or “la raison” (or nearly so) and argue about them. For instance, there is little doubt about the communicability of the COVID-19 virus and the steps that one can or should take to minimize its impact. But first we need to agree on the facts. If we can agree on the facts, we can then collectively decide on the actions to be taken. La vertue is subject to political debate. If we can move past that debating knowable facts (or facts supported by valid, nearly indisputable theory), we can then decide what we should do. With respect to the virus, we can agree on much of the science. Then we can argue about whether we should shut down the economy or not, fine people for not wearing masks or not, open schools or not. First, accept the provable facts—then apply your morality or your balancing of competing interests. That’s what politics is about—the means to get to a desired result (a healthy economy and a healthy populace)—at the least cost.
We have made great strides in science, technology, statistics, and medicine in the past century. We should use these tools to, when we can, demonstrate whether something is “la raison” and then move to how we handle the statistics and the facts and fashion policy.
As Ben says:
We are letting science, math and the provable be hijacked by limited, righteous partisans. Mt. Trump and Mr. Sanders exploit it so well. It is a problem since math, science and #s have been the basis for mankind’s progress for centuries. In addition to the provable “right,” we need a huge, big “la vertue” tent. In Western Hemisphere, this tent has been based on our shared Judeo-Christian values. It is vital to connectedness, a society .. as Bruce Springsteen would say, it causes “the ties that bind.”
After sharing this concept with a friend, that person noted:
“Thought more about the language concept - wrong is similar in English - cheating on your wife is wrong and the numbers are wrong is the same word - in French or Spanish - maths would be “faux” which is “not true” and cheating on your wife would be “mal” which is “not good” and mal is the same word as pain – i.e. Moral issues can’t be right or wrong - they are good or bad - fascinating - had never made the connection.“
Interesting thoughts. It would be helpful if we could all agree on the basic facts, not politicizing them. There is plenty to politicize in the policy choices and the implementation of responses to the facts.”
Ce n’est pas mal pour commencer, n’est-ce pas?
When complete distrust of institutions takes hold, bad results must follow. Our institutions are worthy of rebuke, but not contempt. Government has failed us in many respects, but not so much as to warrant the far-right repudiation of the good that it does. More importantly, and perhaps more dangerously, some 45% of the country voted for Donald Trump, notwithstanding the repeated correct reporting by the media over his serial incompetence, missteps, lies, interference with the impeding of the government’s proper functioning, and myriad other things. If they followed the obvious coverage of the media and believes even a little of it, they could not have concluded this man has earned a second term.
People talk a good game about the national good; but they vote their self-interest. What else explains the vote of those who lost their jobs, or caught COVID because of the administration’s incompetence an mendacity, or Cuban-Americans voting “against Communism” or wealthy voting their pocketbook, or people voting simply because “he dares to speak his mind”?
Polling simply doesn’t work. Did we not learn anything from the 2016 election? Polling methods are flawed and the endless data they spew is untrustworthy. First, how many people even answer their land lines? And how many are willing to sit on a phone for 20 minutes answering questions? Current methodology cannot possibly create a broad enough spectrum of dependable, willing participants to make the sample meaningful. Those who answer polls are by definition a self-identified subset with time on their hands and more patience than I possess. I have never agreed to sit and be polled—and I’m betting most of you haven’t either.
The Republicans will not miss Trump. He has been a necessary evil that they must embrace in order not to antagonize the base. When there is another standard-bearer, they will be happier. Let’s remember that there is no love lost behind closed doors.
The Democratic Party still has not learned how to speak to middle America. Again, the party of the “working man” has missed the boat. One cannot continue to have a coalition dominated by the coastal elites, the educated, and the successful. The party must figure out how to speak to the middle.
The cultural elites cannot continue to think of Trump supporters as “intolerables.” They’re people and, like it or not, they represent nearly half of the country.
The cultural war on the right will never stop; but the cultural war from the left must. Many Trump voters are “one issue” voters. They will vote for the Second Amendment or against abortion rights no matter what. But the left has a big problem with its messaging. I think many of the Trump voters (and many of the Democratic middle) resent the constant need to identify people as fundamentally and irretrievably racist, or that they use the wrong semantics (“it’s not homeless—it’s houseless”). And they certainly don’t appreciate the squelching of free speech on college campuses and the excesses of the left on missions that are hardly important. Did the University of Wisconsin student government really need to vote to take down an iconic statue of Abraham Lincoln because he wasn’t woke enough for them? These skirmishes dilute the message and divert from the core concerns of racial and social justice.
The sunbelt will never be the same. Previously solid-red states like Arizona, Texas, and Georgia were in play. People are mobile and they're moving from large blue states to smaller red states, and bringing their politics and values with them.
We are two countries that need to understand each other soon. And we haven't done a good job at this in a while. We need to redefine "winning" away from party victories but as the victory of our society to address and overcome the great issues.
Social media must be regulated. It’s a big problem and it isn’t abating, notwithstanding Twitter’s noble attempts to try to label inaccurate political posts. Just as the New York Times has editors, so must these platforms.
It is no secret that, for the past 30 years people increasingly have become more intransigent about their political views and tend to see the world through a lens that is most pleasing to them. Every news item, every piece of data, is viewed in the context of proving the listener’s point. One would have thought that this crisis would cause people to draw together to solve the problems that beset us. Yet it seems the public has returned to their respective corners, ready to go mano-a-mano. Increasingly, even when the facts may be apparent, we disagree on their interpretation.
We are plagued by a concept called “confirmation bias,” which says that we tend to view new information in a way that confirms our existing beliefs. The genius of Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes is not so much that they created a vehicle that presents the news in a different way, but that they created a confirmation bias factory. It isn’t enough to put out the facts in a way that encourages the listener to “connect the dots” to their belief system. The “commentators” are there to connect the dots for you. The brain can turn off as the commentators tell you what just happened and what to believe. While certainly this is also true of commentators on other platforms as well, Fox makes little pretense of hiding its agenda.
Confirmation bias lately has manifest itself in other troubling ways. I have a friend who, when we disagree on a policy or when he doubts a study, he challenges me to show him an article in support of my position. When I send an article from the New York Times, the Washington Post, the L.A. Times and sometimes even the Wall Street Journal, the retort is “that’s a biased news source,” “that’s just fake news” or “that’s just the liberal mainstream media that you liberals listen to.” This last one I find most amusing, since until fairly recently I pretty consistently chose more conservative candidates. Confirmation bias is even simpler to come by when one opts out of any source of information that might not conform to one’s own bias. Alas, how can one ever have a conversation on any reasonable terms, when there is no sense that there are mutually accepted facts.
But the greatest winner in the “Confirmation Bias Derby” has to be Facebook. Their algorithm is designed to feed you only the news you want to read. And since over 50% of Millennials seek their news primarily from Facebook, how can we be surprised that people’s opinions have ossified? As recently as this month, a Facebook executive acknowledged that they have known for years that their algorithm—the very basis of their business model—promotes divisiveness.
FIXING THE TOXIC BODY POLITIC AND RHETORIC
We must begin by honoring the position of the other. Every conversation or press conference ought to begin with an acknowledgement of the validity of a statement, policy objective, or ideal of the other side. Think of it as reaching out a hand—one without a concealed weapon. A handshake has preceded constructive discussions and friendships for generations. While the physical one may take a while to come back in use, the figurative handshake is what we so desperately need now.
Thoughts one week after the death of George Floyd and amidst the protests:
“…he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid…”
--Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman
Last Monday, George Floyd was murdered by Derek Chauvin and attention must be paid. The entire event was caught on video. The circumstances bear repeating. Mr. Floyd was handcuffed and on the ground. Chauvin’s knee was held on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the last 3 minutes of which occurred after Floyd was no longer responsive. Chauvin was a police officer, whose charge is to protect all of us, whether we are walking the dog, doing our business, or suspected of a crime. This murder of a Black man, immobilized and in custody, was committed ostensibly in the performance of Mr. Chauvin’s duties. This is not the first time this has happened.
Who would have thought that the respite from the relentlessness of the COVID crisis, the cacophony of pundits, the endless tweets, and the fear would come from yet another crisis—one not of a biological nature, but of our own doing?
That this act of violence occurred is repugnant but what adds to the tragedy is that the repetition of acts like this, in cities across our nation, has become so regular and we have been desensitized to its repetition. These murders, which might as well have been committed by men in white hoods, have become as second nature to our psyche as have school shootings. We are lesser because we are inured to both of these types of hideous violence. We will be judged harshly by history for our complacency.
THE COVID LESSON
What we have learned from the current viral crisis is our inter-relationship with our fellow citizens. We have come to finally realize that the physical and mental health of others has a profound effect on us and our wellbeing. What we have learned is that public health is a truly a public issue. Whether you wear a mask determines whether I’m going to become sick—or die. And if I act the same, you are safer.
By sheer coincidence, this inter-relationship—both with respect to our collective responsibility for the spread of the virus and with respect to our collective responsibility to demand reforms in policing—was brought home as I was finishing the novel, The Resisters, by Gish Jen. The premise of that book is a future where we are increasingly dependent upon (and ultimately beholden to and enslaved by) a technological “big brother” (think Alexa on steroids). Late in the book, the leader of the “resisters” quotes Martin Luther King Jr.:
“I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
These words, from King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” over 50 years ago, ring as true today (and in the future described by Ms. Jen) as they did then.
In response to the murder of George Floyd, many protests occurred around the country. One of those was here in Los Angeles. We went to witness the protest on Saturday afternoon in Beverly Hills. It was peaceful and emotional. Most of the protesters were wearing masks (many were not, and I worry for them). That these protests occurred is not surprising. It would be surprising if they had not. That there was some graffiti tagged in anger isn’t okay, but understandable.
Demanding simply that the people be kept safe by the police—and from the police—is hardly radical. Two unfortunate byproducts from these protests, which I fear will be the main “takeaway” for many, is the vandalism and violence committed by a relatively few people and the press’s presentation of the protests not as fueled by injustice, but as violent lawlessness.
It is perfectly natural that some subset of any large group of people who are angry (and in this case appropriately angry) will attract the few who opportunistically commit acts of violence. But these are the outliers and they were called out and asked to refrain—both by the peaceful protesters and the security guards at Nordstrom’s. Obviously, the destruction of property is wrong; but it wasn’t the objective of most of those protesting.
Please don’t misinterpret my concern about the serious need for reform in policing in our country as somehow condoning violence in response. Violence of any type—whether committed by protesters, those troublemakers capitalizing upon the protests to foment violence, the police or the armed populace—is wrong. Notwithstanding that violence is out there and that we may be scared is not the story.
The destruction of property was a story, to be sure. But it wasn’t the story. The real story is the indignation of so many who stood in solidarity together against an epidemic of police violence, the target of which is Black Americans. The minor story is that around the periphery of the protests were acts of vandalism and violence (not justifiable, but explainable). As best as can be determined, these acts were committed by some small segment of opportunists at the periphery, seizing upon the moment.
THE NEED FOR RULES
WE ALL NEED RULES—PERFECTLY GOOD SYSTEMS GO ASTRAY AND NEW RULES ARE REQUIRED
I've been thinking a lot about how we seem to be "off track" in so many areas. We can't seem to get a handle on anything. It seems that systems that once were dependable now creak under the stresses of old age, an inability to adapt, and the hijacking of these systems to ends not desirable.
Notwithstanding what everyone other than the far right, extreme capitalists and anarchists might say, there is a consensus that we need government to help us attack some of the "wicked problems" that beset us and we need rules within which to help guide human behaviors, both to allow them to pursue their personal aspirations and to do so within a framework that doesn't harm others and benefit society. In a word, we need regulation.
There is a lot of talk about this topic these days. Conservatives will tell you that we are over-regulated, and that it's hard to do business with the volumes and volumes of regulations, many of which seem not to further a public policy or may have outlived their usefulness. Liberals will tell you that we are an economy run amok--that big corporations are not regulated enough, that they cut jobs and salaries, down-size and redeploy in ways that are harmful to their workers and to the greater good. As someone who has managed businesses for 25+ years, I can attest that both are right. We have a lot of rules that impede productivity and process. But many establish the playing field that frees people to innovate, hire, and provide goods and services. These rules are necessary. And, no, the “invisible hand” of the market doesn’t decide what’s good—in its extreme incarnation, it just means lawlessness. All games need rules.
I think a way to look at regulation is to consider why we have them in the first place. They exist in order to encourage behaviors that benefit society generally but also serve to compensate those who fill these needs by taking risks, assuming liabilities, and investing the time and talent to make these things happen. Rather than thinking about corporations first, let me take a look at a few other things--great and small--that initially responded to perceived needs, but have evolved to work against the original objectives of the “games.”
RULES IN SPORTS
As most baseball fans will agree, games have gotten longer and more technical for a variety of reasons. We haven't figured out how to "tweak" the game to get us back to competitive entertainment contained in a 2 1/2 hour period of time. By an unwillingness to address some of the weaknesses of the game and the delays and tedium brought about by meticulous and complex analysis and application of metrics, the "game" no longer is about entertainment and increasingly is about the complex data analysis and fine-tuning of the game. In essence, it has become a competition of statistics, endless pitching changes, senseless games without end.
We have forgotten that the GOAL of the game is entertainment.
But today, the RESULT seems to be awarding nerdy analysis and over-managing, allowing seemingly unlimited interruptions, as the primary objective.
RULES IN POLITICS
I won't belabor this, but we have lost our way, with Congress after Congress unable to legislate. This has been true in California for years, with the State legislature punting the ball to the initiative and referendum process.
The GOAL is intended to be legislation based upon compromise of multiple factors and interests in order to improve the lives of the citizens.
Instead, the RESULT is a battle of "winner take all" philosophies that appeal to the "true believers" on both sides. The system is broken because the PRODUCT is the accumulation of power that can be wielded solely to further the special interests backing the candidates and parties.
RULES IN JOURNALISM
There was a quaint time when journalism was all about delivering news and trying to decipher and analyze that news for the general public.
The GOAL was an informed electorate. Certainly, media outlets competed with each other to generate greater attention, importance, and revenue. And while revenue was important, the media had another goal that was highly valued--professional excellence. There was a day when television journalists, for example, spoke of the CBS news apparatus with a mix of awe and jealousy.
Today the RESULT is whatever will generate ratings. I've ranted about this enough over the past months, but media of all types increasingly are appealing to a "base" that can drive "eyeballs" and ad revenue. The news no longer is curated for relevance and importance, but for maximizing attention and ad revenue.
RULES IN CAPITALISM
Why do businesses exist? Certainly to generate profits for ownership and shareholders. But corporations are legal fictions created by government to make it more efficient for businesses to finance themselves, limit personal liability, and deliver a PRODUCT.
That product is goods and services, delivered through a sophisticated mechanism that encourages innovation and facilitates the accumulation and deployment of capital. Corporations are given tax breaks at times in order to encourage hiring and create jobs. Increasingly, however, the societal goal of providing needed goods and services and to provide jobs have taken a back seat (far, far, back...) to generating shareholder profits (which are a measure by which corporate executives are able to demand greater and greater compensation packages).
The RESULT is a lobbying system to obtain special favors from government, ever-increasing executive salaries, stock buy-backs and slavish fealty to quarterly Wall Street analysts’ calls.
We need rules in order to encourage companies to produce what society needs in a way that is clean, safe, and accretive to a better life for all.
RULES THAT WORK
Just like baseball needs rules to speed up the game, journalism (particularly in the form of the purveyors of information on the internet) needs rules, and capitalism needs rules. The times have changed and, so, the rules must change.
When pitchers so dominated the game that runs couldn't score and excitement had gone out of the game, baseball lowered the pitcher's mound. That reimposed a balance between hitting and pitching. That sort of tweaking is needed now in how we conduct business, tax our people and conduct our government.
The tweaking is needed across the board in so many things. Gerrymandering needs to be resolved. Corporations need to be encouraged to use less carbon and to retain employees and to produce what we actually need. The tax code and its myriad exceptions, expenditures, loopholes, and special treatments needs to be revamped. The Internet requires adult supervision (a subject for a later Musing).
MUCH OF THE DISCORD IS TRIBALISM AND NOT IDEOLOGY
Ben Van de Bunt reminds me that responses to the pandemic don’t seem to follow values traditionally associated with conservatives and liberals.
One would have expected conservatives to prioritize the sanctity of life, demanding nearly every possible protection to ensure that people aren’t affected by this disease, going as far as major lockdowns. After all, the religious beliefs of the base, particularly as pertains to abortion, would argue that life always trumps freedom of choice and even economics. On the other hand, one would have expected liberals to be supportive of the individual right to “go their own way” and not be told what to do by the government, wary of contact tracing and quarantines. Yet here they are, red states defying clear public health concerns, while blue states seem compliant with many of the restrictions placed on us by government. While these are imperfect examples, they serve to illustrate what increasingly is a divide not across ideological lines, but really a divide across cultural and tribal lines.
Much has been written about the tribalism that has gripped our nation. This is the tribalism and the fears that the Russians and other bad actors capitalize upon in stoking our fears and manipulating our elections. It is well documented that nefarious actors have determined “hot buttons” and trigger both sides of the cultural divide to exploit our tribal divides.
Twenty years ago, one might have been able to identify some fairly broad strokes regarding the ideological underpinnings of the Republicans and Democrats (or conservatives and liberals). Beyond a bipartisan consensus on foreign policy, Republicans believed in small government, balanced budgets, a strong legislature (and related constraints on the executive), and free markets. They now have embraced an expansive executive, massive deficit spending, and corporate welfare. The Democrats believed in muscular big government, free spending, expansive social programs, and the aforementioned fear of government constraints on individual freedoms. Now they seem to have resigned themselves to a limited view of what our government can achieve. The world is topsy-turvy.
Amy Chua, the “tiger mom” from Yale, published the book Political Tribes a couple of years ago, suggesting that we increasingly are a nation organized on the basis of group loyalty, more than ideology. In Hivemind, Sara Cavanagh dives into the political polarization in our world today, particularly in social media. Professors have shown that people on the right or left, when hearing positions of the other side that were attributed to “their side” are supportive. Opinions often are based not on reason, but on attribution.
I maintain that people behave more like New England Patriots fans than they do as independent thinkers. If Tom Brady cheats, it doesn’t matter. “They’re my team and I support them no matter what.” This mindset, when fueled by the quest for power, helps explain why people like Lindsey Graham, so opposed to President Trump at the outset, and demonstrably opposed to many of his policies, continues with the bulk of the Republican Senate majority to support the President simply because he’s standard-bearer of their party. It’s all about power. There are two other phenomena that this rise in tribalism has produced, for discussion another day:
The political elites have seized upon tribalism as a means of rallying the base, and often utilize symbolism to unify people and, in turn, knowingly alienate others.
Political tribes seem to achieve greater cohesion by alienating some of those who aspire to membership, through a culture of name-calling, “cancellation” and binary litmus tests. It is not enough to belong to a political tribe. It is also an apparent essential element of tribal cohesion to exclude and alienate others.
THE ANSWER TO REASONABLE DISCOURSE LIES IN MIDDLE SCHOOL DEBATE
I think we all can agree that critical thinking skills are under siege. Many people don’t seem to understand the difference between a wild assertion and a critically reasoned argument. When one gives the same weight to an assertion as one gives to a thoughtful argument with evidence, one ends up where we are. And as bad as this is, it is exacerbated by an apparent failure to differentiate among the various sources of information out there (like the fact that vaccines work, as backed up by countless studies, vs. a “feeling” that they are either ineffective or anecdotally lead to autism). And then I realized the solution. All we need to do is send people to learn a little bit of Middle School debate and it’ll all be good.
For those who don’t know, I’ve been coaching middle school debaters and teaching parents to be debate judges for the past 15 years, along with my partner in crime, Chris Keyser. Before you ask, yes, our wives think we need to “get a life…” In any event, of all the material we cover, there are three key lessons that we try to teach—lessons that apply to our current situation. Sorta think of this as “everything I ever needed to know, I learned in Middle School debate class…”
1. ASSERTION, REASONING, EVIDENCE
An assertion is just an opinion. Anyone can make an assertion about anything. To give it meat, there must be reasoning associated with that opinion—why is it supported by logic? Finally, any assertion, regardless of its logic, requires evidence to back it up. We currently live in a world where assertions are being made by people who hold a title or who have a microphone and sit in a studio. Their reasoning often is nothing more than trying to connect dots—usually incorrectly. As for evidence, there rarely is much of that at all, other than the assertion of yet another person.
Recently I read with interest a discussion on Facebook where people alleged there was plenty of evidence to “prove” massive voter fraud. The example given was that there were “many affidavits” claiming fraud. The mere existence of these claims was sufficient for their purposes to constitute “evidence.” Of course, one can always get a slew of people who will sign a piece of paper to say almost anything. Indeed, a recent study found that 6% of all Americans believe the Moon landing never happened. That’s 18 million people!
Those who cite the large number of people who claim, without a shred of evidence, that the election was “fixed” are nonplussed that court after court has thrown out these assertions. Why did the court’s throw them out? Because they are mere statements and have no reasoning, nor evidence, to back them up. Here is what Judge Matthew W. Brann wrote in throwing out one case that would have disenfranchised nearly seven million people: “[one would have expected the plaintiff to come] “armed with compelling legal arguments and factual proof of rampant corruption.” Instead they provided only “strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations” that were “unsupported by evidence.”
2. YOU HAVE TO LISTEN
Too often, a young debater is so anxious to speak—to state their opinion—that they don’t bother to listen to the other side. This is like most U.S. Senators, most of whose speeches in debate are not actually even communicated to the other side but are read into a near-empty chamber (or sometimes “read into the record” without actually giving the speech—but that’s another matter). The point is that in order to be heard—to truly be heard, one must learn to listen and be able to respond intelligently to the arguments being made by the other side. The space after one concludes a speech and when other people are talking is not simply the opportunity to take one’s breath until the opportunity to speak again. It is the opportunity to hear an opposing point of view and either respond to that point with logical refutation or perhaps modify one’s position. Without pausing to listen to others, there is no communication. We teach the kids to listen carefully and take notes.
3. NOT ALL SOURCES ARE THE SAME AND THEY SHOULD BE WEIGHED DIFFERENTLY
We increasingly live in an environment where people are quick to cite a study or an opinion, with little regard for the source of that opinion. Some sources are experts in the field (although expertise these days seems to count for little). Some sources are people with political agendas. Some sources are retweeting other sources. What do we teach young debaters?
Not all sources of information are of equal import. An op-ed by a scientist appearing in The New York Times or a double-blind study by Stanford University carry just a little more weight than my Aunt Mildred’s opinion.
Anecdotes are illustrative but hardly dispositive. Just because it happened to someone you know or respect doesn’t mean it happens generally. The plural of anecdote, regardless of the credibility of the source, is not necessarily data.
Then there’s the fallacy of authority. We tend to view the pronouncements of public figures with greater deference than we should. Most politicians, regardless of their good faith, have political motivation. And just because someone is Chief Justice or President doesn’t make them an expert on everything. Their pronouncements are merely assertions of opinion, unless backed up by the aforementioned reasoning and evidence. Finally, people shouldn’t trust Gwyneth Paltrow for anything.
TODAY’S DEBATES ARE NOT DEBATES AT ALL—THEY ARE THEATRE AND A FIGHT TO THE DEATH
When we coach students in debate, we remind them that in the sport of debate, one is not trying to persuade the other team—the only persuading that matters is directed to the judge. One would expect that the “undecided voters” are the “judges.” But with so few undecided voters, many of whom don’t pay attention to cable news and social media, the “debate” isn’t a debate at all. Rather, in our current political environment—on cable news, in Congress, and in social media—it is instead about “firing up the base”—those people who already are partisans. Debates in a public forum is generally between partisans. That means that, other than turning up the heat, not much progress is being made. By way of example, rarely has David Axelrod convinced Rick Santorum on CNN that he is right. And no one is about to convince Donna Brazille of anything…
The only way meaningful discourse can occur is if people enter into conversations with the notion that they really want to learn the truth, that they are willing to be persuaded, and that they share certain values and objectives with their opponents. That’s how the give and take of legislation is supposed to work. But so long as there is “discussion” on cable news or across Facebook, with many other people listening to nail their adversaries and propping up the arguments of their favorite talking heads with supportive comments and “likes,” other factors take over. Truth is not based upon “likes” or public opinion polls. Truth is based upon debate and compromise.
As for discussions even among friends, people won’t admit to being wrong in front of others, particularly if an audience is watching. Insecurities dictate that people retreat into their positions and become more adamant—not less. The space between a person’s post and their next should not simply be a pause before firing up the next argument. Rather, the pause should be the opportunity to consider divergent points of view. Today, conversations across social media and cable news is a blood sport that people want to “win,” and not a forum for the free exchange of ideas. It will be tough to get out of this cycle.
WHAT THIS MEANS TO OUR DEMOCRACY
Chris recounts a lecture he attended once. He doesn’t recall the speaker but the message is important. The gist of it is that “the central prerequisite of our democracy is not our shared belief in liberty or equality, but the acknowledgement on each of our parts of the possibility that we might be wrong.” Hear, hear.