Category Archives: Articles

Why I’m Still Skeptical About the Progressive Revolution

My social media bubble has drifted well to the left of center, so I hear a lot of frustration with the Democratic Party — particularly with the centrist Clintonite wing that has dominated the DNC in recent years, during which the party has lost the White House, both houses of Congress, and vast numbers of seats in state legislatures. The solution is supposed to be for all those people to get out of the way and let the progressive Bernie-supporting wing of the party take over. Hillary Clinton in particular should just go away, and anybody involved in the DNC in 2016 should follow her. The Left is where the youth and energy of the party are, and it has the kind of bold proposals that might get disaffected voters to the polls. Look what Jeremy Corbyn just did in the UK.

I’m almost there. The critique — lost elections at all levels — is inarguable. And I long for a more visionary approach to the future. Take gun control as a neutral example that cuts across the Clinton/Sanders line: All Democrats — and most of the rest of the country — can agree that our current gun laws are stupid. The fact that we don’t even do universal background checks on gun purchasers is insane (and so are some of the people who exploit the loopholes in the system and buy guns). But in the Ideal Democratic Future, what is the relationship between American citizens and guns? Does anybody have an answer for that?

But I have to admit, on almost every other issue progressives have a clear advantage on the vision-of-the-future front. Again and again, the centrists get lost in the next-small-step argument and never get around to saying where they want to go. But conversely, while progressives are clear on the Big Idea, they’re often vague about what the next step is. (After Congress rejects his single-payer healthcare plan, does President Sanders have a Plan B, or does he just wait for the next Congress?)

So while I’m rooting for the progressives, let me tell you exactly where I get stuck. All my political life, the left wing of the Democratic Party (and the non-Democrats who reject the party for not being liberal enough) has been suffering from the delusion that it’s more popular than it actually is. Again and again, I have heard that somebody like Ralph Nader or Dennis Kucinich represented what the American people really want, and then seen them get something like 2% of the vote. And then, in the next election the same people would come back and tell me the same thing, as if the last election never happened.

Polls. Why do they think this? It’s not purely wishful thinking; there are polls that say the same thing. If you ask about specific issues, and phrase your questions right, you can get sizeable majorities of the American people to agree with liberal positions.

In early 2015, for example, 68% of Americans told pollsters that the rich don’t pay enough tax; only 11% thought the rich pay too much. This February, a 60%-38% majority said the government should “make sure that all Americans have healthcare coverage”. Last year, 63% described their response to “Medicare for all” as either “very positive” (36%) or “somewhat positive” (27%). In 2013, Gallup found 72% support for “a federal government program that would spend government money to put people to work on urgent infrastructure repairs”.

Early in 2015, the Progressive Change Institute polled a wide range of issues: 71% supported letting anyone buy in to Medicare. 70% were for a “Green New Deal” to create millions of clean-energy jobs. 63% favored free community college. 70% would expand Social Security benefits. 61% wanted a special prosecutor to investigate all police killings. And more.

However, you can also get different results if you ask different questions. In 2013, a WaPo/ABC poll found 61% support for an across-the-board 5% cut in federal spending. That’s a fairly consistent pattern: As an abstract concept, government spending is unpopular, even while spending on particular programs has broad support. And while majorities always think the rich should pay more tax, nobody thinks that they themselves are rich — and hardly anybody thinks people like them should pay more tax.

So it’s naive to think that you can get those 60% or 70% majorities by running on a progressive platform. You’d get those majorities if you ran on a progressive platform, and then managed to control the narrative of the campaign so that the eventual vote turned on the issues where you have large majorities behind you.

But that never happens. Just ask Hillary; I don’t think she expected to spend the last week of the campaign answering questions about the FBI. In 1988, Dukakis had Bush nailed on the issues — so the Bush campaign invented an issue out of nothing: They were for the pledge of allegiance and Dukakis (they claimed) was against it. They won.

The 2016 primaries. Bearing that history in mind, what did 2016 really tell us? On my social media feed, I often hear the story told this way: Bernie was the people’s choice, but the Democratic establishment pushed Hillary through in spite of her unpopularity.

And here’s my problem with that story: If the people had really wanted Bernie, they could have voted for him. That’s what happened where I live in New Hampshire (where I dithered, and then voted for Bernie myself). If the power of the establishment works anywhere, it should work in the early primaries, when the upstart candidate seems most unlikely. But Hillary’s initial advantages in name recognition and money and endorsements got her only a tiny victory margin in Iowa, and then got her clobbered in New Hampshire, where Bernie got 60% of the vote and won every county.

From that point on, the race was a free-for-all. And Bernie lost that free-for-all: His total primary vote was 13.2 million, compared to Clinton’s 16.9 million. That loss can’t be attributed to some fluke of the process: He also never caught Clinton in the national polls. For a couple weeks in mid-April he got within a point or two, but then Clinton started to pull away. The late-breaking trend was entirely towards Clinton, climaxing with her 7-point win in California, a state which fits the Sanders profile as well as any.

Sanders supporters who don’t go in for a DNC-stole-the-election conspiracy theory often blame the media: Sanders couldn’t get his message out. The articles about him didn’t focus on how great his proposals were, and instead drew too much attention to stereotypes like “Bernie bros”.

But a campaign never gets the media coverage it wants. Clinton certainly didn’t. The same Harvard study that pointed out how little serious media attention Sanders got in 2015 also showed that the attention to Clinton was almost entirely negative.

Whereas media coverage helped build up Trump, it helped tear down Clinton. Trump’s positive coverage was the equivalent of millions of dollars in ad-buys in his favor, whereas Clinton’s negative coverage can be equated to millions of dollars in attack ads, with her on the receiving end.

The 2016 general election. Yes, I often hear, but Clinton lost to Trump and Sanders would have won.

I don’t think that’s clear at all. Yes, Hillary would have beaten Trump if she’d gotten Jill Stein’s votes, which almost certainly would have gone to Bernie if he’d been the nominee.

But there’s another third-party possibility everybody forgets: When Bernie was surging after New Hampshire, Michael Bloomberg considered running, perhaps because he saw a big hole in the center if it came down to Trump vs. Sanders. But by early March, after the Southern primaries had given Clinton a significant delegate lead (and the day before Sanders’ surprise win in Michigan put him back in the race for a few weeks), Bloomberg backed out. So don’t compare Trump/Clinton/Stein to a Trump/Sanders race where Sanders gets all the Stein votes. Instead picture the Trump/Bloomberg/Sanders race. How many votes does Bernie lose in the center that Hillary got? More than Stein took, I’ll bet.

After a defeat, everyone sees what went wrong, so there have been a lot of articles about what a bad candidate Clinton was. But you also can’t forget this: Hillary was the only candidate in 2016 who beat Trump in a debate, and she did it all three times. That’s not a judgment call: She actually got a bump in the polls after each one. I don’t think we can just assume Sanders would have done as well.

The Tea Party parallel. When the Tea Party popped into existence in the spring of 2009, it was largely an astroturf phenomenon. Yes, there was public anger on the Right, animated by fear of what the new Obama administration might do (and also by some fairly thinly veiled racism). But the message was spread with Koch money and the early rallies given unlimited free publicity by Fox News.

But eventually it turned into a Frankenstein monster that got away from the people who hoped to control it. Rather than a simple Republican rebranding operation — it’s hard to remember now just how defeated the Republicans were after 2008 — it turned into a faction that took the Party away from its previous establishment. John Boehner rode the movement to the speakership, but then was forced out by it. Jeb Bush had all the same advantages going into 2016 that Clinton did, but got nowhere with them. The Trump presidency is the ultimate result: The Tea Party is his base.

So the Tea Party demonstrates the vulnerability of party establishments, and it also gives a road map for an insurgency to take control: win elections. In 2010, Marco Rubio was an insurgent candidate aligned with the Tea Party. He beat Florida’s sitting governor (Charlie Crist) in a primary for the Senate nomination, then won a three-way race in the fall against Crist and a Democrat. Ted Cruz had a similar path to the Senate in 2012, upsetting the sitting Republican Lieutenant Governor in a primary. In 2014, a Tea Party candidate beat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary.

In short, after their horrible 2008 defeat, the Republican establishment did not just step aside and surrender the party to the upstarts. The Bush dynasty, for example, did not just go away. Tea Party candidates had to win the GOP at the ballot box. Can progressives do something similar on the Democratic side?

Prove it to me. I keep hearing that the Democratic establishment is completely out of touch with the voters. It raises no enthusiasm. It has no vision for how to regain power. The progressive agenda, on the other hand — Medicare for everybody, free college, $15 minimum wage, taxing the rich, breaking up the big banks, and so forth — is where the people are. Bernie is the most popular politician in the country.* The progressives have all the energy and momentum.

If that’s all true, then it shouldn’t be hard for candidates to run on that progressive agenda, with the support of progressive heroes like Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and win elections. In particular, primary elections against those tired old DNC-supported candidates should be easy victories.

So far that’s not happening. Why not?

We just had a test in Virginia, a swing state that Clinton won in 2016 by a surprisingly large 5.3%. The two candidates in the Democratic primary for governor were probably not that far apart in reality, but the race got framed as a progressive-vs-establishment contest. Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam lined up the all the big-name Virginia Democratic endorsements, while former Congressman Tom Perriello ran as an outsider with a populist message. Sanders campaigned with Perriello, and Elizabeth Warren endorsed him.

It was supposed to be close, and then it wasn’t: Northam won by 14%.

I’m still waiting for a breakthrough progressive win. So far I’m getting claims of moral victory and excuses about establishment power. A progressive candidate for Congress lost the Montana special election — but he did well in a red district and the DNC should have done more for him. (Tomorrow we’ll see an opposite test: John Ossoff is running as a centrist in a red district outside Atlanta.)

Maybe revolution is the wrong metaphor. Northam won in Virginia by adopting a lot of the progressive platform and some of its rhetoric, as politicians will do when the national mood shifts. That’s an evolution, not a revolution.

The real test will be the 2018 primaries. I hope progressives give those primaries a real Tea Party effort: Don’t just stand on the sidelines and complain that the establishment didn’t give you good candidates. Run your own candidates, and put all that youth and energy behind them.

If you do that, you might win, but you also might lose, because the Left always believes it’s more popular than it actually is. If it turns out that’s still true, then the only way to get to a majority is to find allies that you can pull partway towards your agenda. That would be evolution rather than revolution. But it would still be change.


* Getting back to my control-the-narrative theme, I wonder how Bernie’s national popularity is holding up this week, when his name keeps getting mentioned in the context of the Scalise shooting. I think it’s completely unfair to blame Bernie for something done by an obscure volunteer for his campaign, and the Scalise shooting has nothing to do with the Sanders agenda, but political narratives are unfair.

Political Violence is Our Issue Too

Political violence is a problem, we’re tempted to think, but not for us.

After all, our candidate wasn’t the one who openly agitated for violence at his rallies, excused his criminally violent supporters as “passionate“, or hinted about his opponent’s assassination. Our congresspeople don’t assault reporters. We don’t use guns as props at our demonstrations, or carry banners about the Tree of Liberty needing to be watered by the blood of tyrants. (The guy on the right was protesting outside an Obama townhall meeting in 2009.) We don’t call for our opponents to be shot for treason. Our senators aren’t encouraging us “to shoot at the government when it becomes tyrannical”.

No, no, that’s not us. We build on the nonviolent heritage of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and the Freedom Riders. The day after Trump’s inauguration, we brought millions of people into the streets without any violence. (I was on Boston Common with a couple hundred thousand others. The most confrontational thing I heard was Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey saying to Trump, “We’ll see you in court.”)

Yeah, those other guys need to be more careful, so that they don’t encourage Islamophobes to kill people on public transit, or promote conspiracy theories that result in gullible guys shooting up pizza places or getting into gun battles with cops on their way to shut down the heart of the Great Plot.

But not us. We’re OK.

And then shit happens.

Wednesday, James Hodgkinson started shooting at Republican congresspeople as they practiced for an annual charity baseball game against Democratic congresspeople. (In other words, while they were doing maybe the least offensive thing some of them have done all year.) House Majority Whip Steve Scalise was hit, along with a staffer and two police. He was in critical condition for a couple of days before being upgraded to serious.

Hodgkinson died after being shot by police, and so far we don’t have a note or other statement explaining his actions. But the political motivation seems obvious: He volunteered for the Sanders campaign in Iowa. He made anti-Trump comments on social media. He came all the way from Illinois, so he didn’t just happen to be in that park looking to shoot some random person. During his attack, he had a list of Republican congressmen in his pocket.

To me, as a liberal, this looks anomalous. But it doesn’t to conservatives, who blame liberals for a number of attacks we don’t identify as our own: like the shooting of five police officers in Dallas, or of two other police in New York City. The shooters appear to have been motivated by revenge against police in general for police shootings of blacks. We protested the same shootings, so they must be with us. Ditto for violence in Ferguson and Baltimore after the Michael Brown and Freddie Gray killings; liberals were also angered by those killings, so conservatives pin the violence on us.

Then there are the antifa (i.e. anti-fascist) and black bloc (named for their style of dress, not their skin color) street fighters who battle against similar right-wing hooligans. (That strikes me as a case of mutual myopia: Each side sees the thugs on the other side, and conveniently overlooks its own.) Some conservatives even blame us for attacks by Muslims. We’re the ones who stick up for Muslim rights and protest when Trump tries to get tough with them, so the killers in Orlando and San Bernadino are our people too.

If you’re a liberal like me, chances are this sounds nutty to you. And mostly it is. I have never advocated assassinating police officers or street fighting or nightclub massacres or gunning down congressional ballplayers, and I don’t consider those actions to be a rational extrapolation of anything I did advocate. I can’t see that Bernie Sanders bears any responsibility for the fact that some guy both supported his campaign and tried to kill the House majority whip. And the mere fact that you don’t want the University of California to help Milo Yiannopoulos spread his hateful message doesn’t implicate you in the Berkeley riot.

But now I do have to concede something: I need to offer other people the same kind of understanding I want for myself.

So I need to say this to conservatives: You may believe that Islam poses some unique threat to the American way of life (and I may disagree with you), but that doesn’t make you responsible for the Portland guy who yelled racial slurs at two Muslim women and then killed two guys who tried to defend them. You may interpret the 2nd Amendment differently than I do, but that doesn’t make you an accomplice to every mass shooting. You may believe abortion should be illegal, but that doesn’t equate you with the people who assassinate abortion doctors or shoot up Planned Parenthood clinics.

And yet, I don’t want to let off the hook everyone (on either side) who hasn’t actually pulled a trigger. You can’t say “somebody ought to kill that guy” and then claim innocence if somebody does. You can’t put out a wanted poster saying a doctor is “wanted by God” and then absolve yourself after someone delivers him to God. You can’t pose with a facsimile of someone’s bloody head, and express shock if someone bloodies the real head. If you invent and spread baseless conspiracy theories like Pizzagate, you are implicated if someone believes you and responds in a way that might make sense if the theory were true.

Staying involved without contributing to the problem is a tricky line to walk. It’s just as important to understand what the problem isn’t as to understand what it is.

The problem isn’t “extremism”, if that word just refers to views well outside the mainstream. The kind of libertarianism that wants to privatize the streets and zero out all anti-poverty programs is extreme. Confiscating all fortunes larger than $1 billion would be extreme. Amending the Constitution to ban all privately owned firearms or to make Christianity the official religion would be extreme. And yet, these are all proposals that people might debate rationally, without killing each other.

The problem isn’t that people are taking politics too seriously. Politics is serious. Politics is whether we go to war. It’s whether sick people get care. It’s whether your children get educated or have a shot at a job someday. It’s whether your town gets rebuilt after the hurricane, whether our food is safe to eat, or if we’ll be prepared for the next epidemic. It’s serious. It’s worth arguing about. It’s worth obsessing over, even. It’s worth getting out on the street and continuing to make your demands after the authorities say no. Taking politics seriously isn’t the problem. Serious people can have debates without killing each other.

Violence is different from seriousness or extremism. It comes out of dehumanization, out of believing that your opponents are so evil that they can’t be reasoned with, and that your side’s victory is so important that if you lose you might as well pull the Temple down on everyone. It comes from feeling cornered, like if you lose this battle you have nowhere to retreat to, no chance to find more persuasive arguments and win another day.

Lots of people in America are feeling that kind of despair. Anything you say in public, you have to figure that some desperate person is going to hear.

What goes on in those desperate minds? One of the creepiest novels I’ve ever read was John Fowles’ The Collector. It centers on a young man who wins the lottery and uses the money to pursue his fantasy: He quits his job, remodels his house to include a prison cell, kidnaps an attractive young woman, and keeps her there, hoping she will come to love him. As she get more desperate to escape, eventually she dies, and then he decides to find someone else and start the process again.

What I found most disturbing about the novel was how much I could identify with the the root fantasy: Someone who doesn’t notice you might still come to love you, if somehow circumstances could be contrived to throw you together. I’ve had that fantasy, and yet it never led to kidnapping or imprisonment or death. Probably all that would have been needed to prevent the novel’s tragedy was one good buddy, who over a beer would hear some version of the daydream before it ever hardened into a plan, appreciate it on the level of pure fantasy, and then wistfully say, “Yeah, but that would be crazy. It wouldn’t turn out well.” The Collector doesn’t have that friend and never hears that comment.

Similarly, I think many of us have, at one time or another, fantasized about being an avenging hero. That’s my best guess as to what James Hodgkinson thought he was doing: Those evil Republican congressmen would go on perpetrating their villainy, until some hero stopped them. And when he did stop them, crowds would cheer.

As we live more and more inside our separate bubbles of social media, it becomes increasingly difficult to picture people in distant bubbles as anything other than villains, and all too easy to imagine a cheering crowd. And I think we’re all just a little less likely to find ourselves having that beer with the buddy who says, “Yeah, but that would be crazy.”

I believe this new reality puts an extra responsibility on us. Not to be less serious or less intense. Not to shade our views in the direction of the Center, wherever that is. Not to stop criticizing things that are actually wrong or working to correct them. But definitely to avoid letting someone else believe that we will be in the crowd that cheers their avenging hero fantasy.

I think that means avoiding images and metaphors of violence, whether it’s Kathy Griffin’s severed-head photo or Sarah Palin’s congresspeople-in-the-crosshairs graphic. It means not dehumanizing opponents, and not exaggerating their misdeeds — or making some up out of whole cloth. It means challenging the people on our own side whose rhetoric crosses the line. And it means being, whenever we can, the sympathetic voice that keeps violent fantasy within its proper bounds, and restrains it from morphing into a plan.

Social Capital and Inequality

Inequality is different this time, because the rich are usurping a different kind of capital.


For a long time, most thinkers in the West accepted poverty as natural. As Jesus said: “The poor you will always have with you.” But by 1754, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was writing an entire discourse on the origin of inequality and blaming it largely on the practice of recognizing land as private property.

The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, “Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”

Thomas Paine, who in many ways was the most radical of the American revolutionaries, observed the contrasting example of the Native American tribes — where he found no parallel to European wealth or poverty — and came away with a more nuanced model of the connection between inequality and landed property, which he published in 1797 as Agrarian Justice. He started in much the same place as Rousseau:

The earth in its natural, uncultivated state, was, 
and ever would have continued to be 
THE COMMON PROPERTY OF THE HUMAN RACE. In that state every man 
would have been born to property. He would have been a joint life-proprietor with the rest 
in the property of the soil, 
and in all its natural productions, 
vegetable and animal.

But Paine also recognized that the development of modern agriculture — which he saw as necessary to feed people in the numbers and diversity of activities essential to advanced civilization — required investing a lot of up-front effort: clearing forests of trees and rocks, draining marshlands, and then annually plowing and planting. Who would do all that, if in the end the harvest would belong equally to everybody? He saw private ownership of land as a solution to this problem, but believed it had been implemented badly. What a homesteader deserved to own was his or her improvement on the productivity of the land, not the land itself. If the land a family cleared became more valuable than the forest or marshland they started with, then the homesteaders should own that difference in value, but not the land itself. [1]

Society as a whole, he concluded, deserved a rent on the land in its original state, and he proposed using that income — or an inheritance tax on land, which would not be as clean a solution theoretically, but would be easier to assess and collect — to capitalize the poor.

When a young couple begin the world, 
the difference is exceedingly great 
whether they begin with nothing 
or with fifteen pounds apiece. With this aid they could buy a cow, 
and implements to cultivate a few acres of land; 
and instead of becoming burdens upon society … would be put in the way 
of becoming useful and profitable citizens.

Paine argued this not as charity or even social engineering, but as justice: The practice of privatizing land had usurped the collective inheritance of those born without land, so something had to be done to restore the usurped value.

In one of my favorite talks (I published versions of it here and here), I extended Paine’s idea in multiple directions, including to intellectual property. Just as Paine would buy a young couple a cow and some tools, I proposed helping people launch themselves into a 21st century information economy. Like Paine, I see this as justice, because otherwise the whole benefit of technological advancement accrues only to companies like Apple or Google, reaching the rest of us only through such companies. A fortune like Bill Gates’ arises partly through innovation, effort, and good business judgment, but also by usurping a big chunk of the common inheritance.

Avent. And that brings us to Ryan Avent’s new book, The Wealth of Humans: work, power, and status in the twenty-first century. There are at least two ways to read this book. It fits into the robot-apolcalypse, where-are-the-jobs-of-the-future theme that I have recently discussed here (and less recently here and here). Avent’s title has a double meaning: On the one hand it’s about the wealth humans will produce through the continued advance of technology. But that advance will also result in society having a “wealth” of humans — more than are needed to do the jobs available.

Most books in this genre are by technologists or futurists, and consequently assemble evidence to support a single vision or central prediction. Avent is an economic journalist. (He writes for The Economist.) So he has produced a more balanced analysis, cataloging the forces, trends, and possibilities. It’s well worth reading from that point of view.

But I found Avent’s book more interesting in what it says about inequality and social justice in the current era. What’s different about the 21st century is that technology and globalism have converged to make prosperity depend on a type of capital we’re not used to thinking about: social capital. [2] And from a moral point of view, it’s not at all obvious who should own social capital. Maybe we all should.

What is social capital? Before the Industrial Revolution, capital consisted mainly of land (and slaves, where that was allowed). By the late 19th century, though, the big fortunes revolved around industrial capital: the expensive machines that sat in big factories. The difference between a rich country and a poor one was mainly that people in rich countries could afford to invest in such machinery, which then made them richer. On a national level, industrial capital showed up as government-subsidized railroads and canals and port facilities. (The Erie Canal alone created one of the great 19th-century boom towns: Buffalo.) A country that could afford to make such improvements became more productive and more prosperous.

In the 20th century, the countries that rose to wealth — first Japan and then later Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea — did so partly through investment in machinery, but also through education. An educated populace could provide the advanced services that made an industrial economy thrive. And so we started talking about human capital, the investments that people and their governments make in acquiring skills, and intellectual capital, the patents, copyrights, and trade secrets that powered a 20th-century giant like IBM.

That may seem like a pretty complete list of the kinds of capital. But now look at today’s most valuable companies: Apple and Google, either of which might become the world’s first trillion-dollar corporation in a year or two. Each owns a small amount of land, no slaves, and virtually no industrial capital; Apple contracts out nearly all of its manufacturing, and a lot of Google’s products are entirely intangible. Both employ brilliant, well-educated people, but not hundreds of billions of dollars worth of them. They have valuable patents, copyrights, trademarks, etc., but again, intellectual property alone doesn’t account for either company’s market value. There’s something in how all those factors fit together that makes Apple and Google what they are.

That’s social capital. Avent describes it like this:

Social capital is individual knowledge that only has value in particular social contexts. An appreciation for property rights, for example, is valueless unless it is held within a community of like-minded people. Likewise, an understanding of the culture of a productive firm is only useful within that firm, where that culture governs behavior. That dependence on a critical mass of minds to function is what distinguishes social capital from human capital.

Social capital has always existed and been a factor of production, but something about the current era, some combination of globalism and technology, has brought it to the fore. Today, a firm strong in social capital — a shared way of approaching problems and taking action that is uniquely suited to a particular market at this moment in history — can acquire all the other factors of production cheaply, making social capital the primary source of its wealth. [3]

Who should own social capital? Right now it’s clear who does own a company’s social capital: the stockholders. But should they? Avent talks about Bill Gates’ $70 billion net worth — created mostly not by his own efforts but by the social organism called Microsoft — and then generalizes:

People, essentially, do not create their own fortunes. They inherit them, come to them through the occupation of some state-protected niche, or, if they are very brilliant and very lucky, through infusing a particular group of men and women with the germ of an idea, which, in time and with just the right environment, allows that group to evolve into an organism suited to the creation of economic value, a very large chunk of which the founder can then capture for himself.

Stockholders — the people who put up the money to acquire the other factors of production — currently get the vast majority of the benefit from a company’s social capital, but it’s not clear why they should. We usually imagine other forms of capital as belonging to whomever would have them if the enterprise broke up: The stockholders would sell off the land and industrial and intellectual capital, while the employees would walk away with the human capital of their experience and education. But the company’s social capital would just vanish, the way that a living organism vanishes if it gets rendered into its constituent chemicals. So, rightfully, who owns it?

Another chunk of social capital resides in nations, which are also social organisms. The very real economic value of the rule of law, voluntary compliance with beneficial but unenforceable norms, shared notions of fairness, trust that others will fulfill their commitments, and general public-spiritedness — in other words, all the cultural stuff that makes a worker or firm or idea more valuable in America or Germany than in Burundi or Yemen — who does it belong to? Who should share in its benefits?

Bargaining power. Avent does not try to sell the conservative fairy tale that the market will allocate benefits appropriately. Under the market, what each party gets out of any collective endeavor depends on its relative bargaining power, not on what it may deserve in some more abstract sense.

Avent proposes this thought experiment: What if automation got to the point where only one human worker was required to produce everything? Naively, you might expect this individual to be tremendously important and very well paid, but that’s probably not what would happen. Everyone in the world who wanted a job would want his job, and even if he had considerable skills, probably in the whole world millions of people would share those skills. So his bargaining power would be essentially zero, and even though in some sense he produced everything, he might end up working for nothing.

Globalization and automation, plus political developments like the decline of unions, have lowered the bargaining power of unskilled workers in rich countries, so they get less money, even though in most cases their productivity has increased. As communication gets cheaper and systems get more intelligent, more and more jobs can be automated or outsourced to countries with lower wages, so the bargaining power of the people in those jobs shrinks. That explains this graph, which I keep coming back to because I think it’s the single most important thing to understand about the American economy today: Hourly wages tracked productivity fairly closely until the 1970s, but have fallen farther and farther behind ever since.

Companies could have afforded to pay more — by now, the productivity is there to support a wage nearly 2 1/2 times higher — but workers haven’t had the bargaining power to demand that money, so they haven’t gotten it. [4]

A similar thing happened early in the Industrial Revolution: Virtually none of the benefits that came from industrial capital were shared with the workers, until they gained bargaining power through political action and unionization. The result is the safety net we have today.

Just as workers’ ability to reap significant benefits from the deployment of industrial capital was in doubt for decades, so we should worry that social capital will not, without significant alterations to the current economic system, generate better economic circumstances for most people.

Who’s in? Who’s out? When you do start sharing social capital, whether within a firm or within a country, you run into the question of who belongs. This is a big part of the contracting-out revolution. The janitors and cafeteria workers at Henry Ford’s plants worked for Henry Ford. But a modern technology corporation is likely to contract for those services. By shrinking down to a core competency, it can reward its workers while keeping a tight rein on who “its workers” are. No need to give stock options or healthcare benefits to receptionists and parking lot attendants if they don’t seem essential to maintaining the company’s social capital.

Things shake out similarly at the national level: The more ordinary Americans succeed in getting a share of the social capital of the United States, the greater the temptation to restrict who can get into the US and qualify for benefits — or to throw out people that many of the rest of us think shouldn’t be here.

Avent would like to see us take the broadest possible view of who’s in:

The question we ask ourselves, knowingly or not, is: With whom do we wish to share society? The easy answer, the habitual answer, is: with those who are like us.

But this answer is bound to lead to trouble, because it is arbitrary, and because it is lazy, and because it is imprecise, in ways that invite social division. There is always some trait or characteristic available which can be used to define someone seemingly like us as not like us.

There is a better answer available: that to be “like us” is to be human. That to be human is to earn the right to share in the wealth generated by the productive social institutions that have evolved and the knowledge that has been generated, to which someone born in a slum in Dhaka is every bit the rightful heir as someone born to great wealth in Palo Alto or Belgravia.

Can it happen? Much of the Avent’s book is depressing, but by the time the Epilogue rolls around he seems almost irrationally optimistic. For 200 pages, he has painted as realistic a picture as he could of the challenges we face, whether economic, technological, social, or political. But as to whether things will ultimately work out, he appears to come around to the idea that they have to, so they will. So he ends with this:

We are entering into a great historical unknown. In all probability, humanity will emerge on the other side, some decades hence, in a world in which people are vastly richer and happier than they are now. With some probability, small but positive, we will not make it at all, or we will arrive on the other side poorer and more miserable. That assessment is not optimism or pessimism. It is just the way things are.

Face to face with the unknown, it is hard to know what to feel or what to do. It is tempting to be afraid. But, faced with this great, powerful, transformative force, we shouldn’t be frightened. We should be generous. We should be as generous as we can be.


[1] The arbitrariness of this becomes clear when you consider mineral rights. If my grandfather homesteaded a plot of land, which in my generation turned out to be in the middle of a oil field, what would that wealth have to do with me that I would deserve to own it?

[2] If the term social capital rings a bell for you, you’re probably remembering Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, which appeared as a magazine article in 1995 and was expanded to a book in 2000. But Putnam used the term more metaphorically, expressing a sociological idea in economic terms, rather than as a literal factor of production.

[3] Henry Ford’s company probably also had a lot of social capital, but it was hard to notice behind all those buildings and machines.

[4] Individual employers will tell you that they’d go bankrupt if they had to raise wages 2 1/2 times, and in some sense that’s true: They compete with companies that also pay low wages, and would lose that competition if they paid high wages. But that is simply evidence that workers’ bargaining power is low across entire industries, rather than just in this company or that one.

The Paris Agreement is like my church’s pledge drive

How can a non-binding agreement be as important as Trump’s critics say it is? On a much smaller scale, I’ve just been dealing with something very similar.


If you’ve ever read the Paris Agreement on climate change — it’s dull but relatively short as international agreements go, so it’s not that hard — President Trump’s announcement that the United States is withdrawing from it was a bizarre performance. As you can see from David Victor’s annotation of the speech, virtually every line of it was either false, fantastic, or based on an incorrect assumption. (Near the beginning of the speech David Roberts tweeted: “If Trump says something true, I will notify you all.” There proved to be no need.) Parts of it were even internally contradictory, like the line where he called the agreement “non-binding” and “draconian” in the same sentence.

Thus, as of today, the United States will cease all implementation of the non-binding Paris Accord and the draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country.

But though it was wrong in almost every detail, the picture Trump painted was very vivid: The Paris Agreement is an international conspiracy to hoodwink the United States and wreck our economy.

The fact that the Paris deal hamstrings the United States, while empowering some of the world’s top-polluting countries, should dispel any doubt as to the real reason why foreign lobbyists wish to keep our magnificent country tied up and bound down by this agreement: It’s to give their country an economic edge over the United States.

He did not mention President Obama directly, but the implication was clear: Obama agreed to this either because he was a fool or because he was in on the anti-America plot. Unlike his predecessor, Trump is pro-America — he represents “the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris” — so he’s calling a halt to this nonsense.

Fact-checkers and other expert critics have been easy to find, but there’s a problem with their account, especially as it relates to low-information voters who are inclined to give Trump the benefit of the doubt: Not only is the experts’ interpretation of the Paris Agreement much less arresting than Trump’s paranoid fantasy, it doesn’t seem to hang together either. If the agreement doesn’t bind us into some kind of suicide pact, and doesn’t bind other countries either, how can renouncing it have the kind of apocalyptic consequences critics claim? If the nations that signed the agreement are still free to do whatever they want, how does Paris save any polar bears or avert hurricanes or keep the ocean from swallowing Miami?

So if we’re going to help the public resist Trump’s disinformation campaign, what we really need is not more detailed analysis from experts in international law or economics or climatology. We need a simple example from everyday life that helps people understand what the Paris Agreement is and does. In particular, the example needs to demonstrate how a non-binding agreement can be important.

Luckily, I happen to have such an example handy.

The Paris Agreement is a pledge drive. I admit, this model is in my mind for serendipitous reasons: This spring I was on the committee that organized my church’s annual pledge drive. But it turns out to be a pretty accurate parallel.

Every year, our drive works like this: We announce a target, a total amount that members will need to contribute during the next year if the church is going to do all the stuff our member-elected leadership thinks we should do. We send out a brochure explaining what that stuff is, and how the total compares to what we collected the previous year.

Then we ask everybody to send in cards with pledges: “I will contribute X dollars next year.” The pledges are in no sense binding. If you run into financial problems in the course of the year, you can always call the church office and say, “I’m going to have to lower my pledge.” Or you can just not send in the money. It’s not like we can take you to court or turn your pledge card over to the bill collectors.

The Paris Agreement is like that. It announces a goal: The nations participating in the agreement want to keep the overall increase in average global temperature since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution down to 2 degrees centigrade (or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Since the main cause of this increase is the rise in greenhouse gases (mainly CO2) in the atmosphere, the agreement asks nations to make a pledge to limit their carbon emissions.

Each country determines the size of its own pledge. The pledge can be changed at any time. And there’s no enforcement mechanism that kicks in if you don’t fulfill your pledge.

Just like at my church.

What good is a nonbinding agreement? If no nation is actually committed to anything in a legally enforceable way, you might well wonder what the point of the agreement is. After all, nothing stops a country from announcing an ambitious goal with a lot of fanfare, and then doing nothing. So if you’re looking for absolute certainty that the world is finally going to take serious action to fight climate change, the Paris Agreement doesn’t provide it.

So what does it do? The point of the agreement, as I see it, is more subtle: Like our pledge drive, it’s a trust-building exercise among its members.

In any collective enterprise with voluntary inputs, there’s always a free-rider problem. If, say, I contribute a lot to the church and the guy sitting next to me on Sunday morning gives practically nothing, we both get to sing the same hymns and hear the same sermon. And since no household contributes more than a percent or two of the whole budget, the direct impact of each individual’s contribution to his or her own church experience is close to zero. (If nobody contributes, we’ll have to fire the minister and turn off the heat, which I would notice. But if everybody else contributes an appropriate amount and I don’t, probably not much changes.)

Climate change is like that, especially for countries smaller than China or the United States. Denmark, for example, is a world leader in wind power. In 2015 it generated 40% of its electricity from wind, and plans to be over 50% by 2020. But it’s such a small country that, considered in isolation, its achievement makes practically no difference to the global climate. Even the U.S. isn’t big enough to turn things around by itself, which is sometimes used as an excuse for doing nothing. As Marco Rubio put it during a Republican presidential debate: “America is not a planet.

But the nations of the Paris Agreement — everybody except Nicaragua, Syria, and now us — are really close to being a planet. If they can work together, the gains will be meaningful. Building the trust that allows them to work towards a common goal is where the pledge-drive idea comes in.

The point of a pledge drive is to make sure that if you volunteer to make some sacrifices, you can know that you won’t be alone. Before I send in a single dollar towards next year’s church budget, I get to know what all the pledges total up to. (We missed our goal this year, but we’re close enough that almost all our plans still look feasible.) And before I pledge next year, I get to find out whether this year’s pledged money actually came in. (Again, it’s usually a little bit short, due to people losing jobs and having other unexpected financial problems. But it’s never been so short that fulfilling my commitment made me feel like a sucker.)

That’s what Paris is about. It got each nation to commit to either lower its carbon emissions or (in the case of developing nations) to significantly slow the rate of increase. (China, which still has hundreds of millions of people to bring into the modern age, pledges to stop increasing emissions by 2030. They seem likely to do better than that.) Nations also agree to share information about what they’re doing and how well it’s working. There is, in addition, a literal pledge drive in which rich nations raise money to help poor nations take action. (This is the Green Climate Fund that Trump is revoking Obama’s pledge to.)

So before any nation takes Paris-based action to lower its emissions, it gets to see what the other nations are pledging to do. And along the way, every nation gets to see how faithfully the other nations are carrying out their commitments. It’s a way for sovereign nations to move forward on their own climate-change plans while feeling confident that enough other nations are moving forward that they’re not wasting their effort.

To me, that sounds pretty familiar.

What’s not in the agreement. The Paris Agreement does not specify an carbon-emission goal for any particular nation, or mandate techniques for meeting those goals. What a nation commits to do and how it fulfills that commitment is its own business. The agreement also has no enforcement mechanism, no equivalent of the World Court or the WTO that could pronounce judgment against nations that don’t meet their goals.

So Trump’s claims that the Paris Agreement “blocks the development of clean coal” or mandates that “we can’t build [coal-fired power] plants” or puts our energy reserves “under lock and key” are pure fiction. If anybody had a genuinely clean way to get energy out of coal, it would lower our emissions and help us meet our Paris goals. So clean coal is only “blocked” to the extent that it doesn’t work. And energy reserves are under lock and key only to the extent that we voluntarily forego their use.

Likewise, his statements that “foreign leaders … have more say with respect to the U.S. economy than our own citizens” and that “our withdrawal from the agreement represents a reassertion of America’s sovereignty” are nonsense. Our elected government made a pledge that it can adjust at any time. If it chooses to fulfill that pledge, how it does so is totally its own decision.

Why withdrawing makes no sense. I mean that literally. It’s not just that I disagree with Trump’s decision as a matter of policy, it’s that it makes no sense.

Think about it in terms of the pledge drive. Suppose I believed about my church what Trump seems to believe about Paris: that my pledge is so much higher than other people’s that the rest of the congregation is essentially taking advantage of my generosity. Everybody else should either pony up more money or get used to the idea of a more austere church.

OK then: Does it make sense for me to withdraw from the pledge drive? Not a bit. It’s not the pledge drive itself that I think is unfair to me, it’s the size of my voluntary contribution relative to the total. But I could fix that unilaterally. If I felt like a sucker, it might make sense for me to lower my pledge for next year, or even to call up the church office right now and angrily announce that I’m done contributing for this year, even though I haven’t fulfilled my pledge yet. If they need more money they should get it from somebody else.

Trump could have done that. If he has any particular terms in mind — which I suspect he doesn’t; I doubt he’s thought about it that deeply — the “renegotiation” he called for could just be an announcement. If he believes Obama’s pledge is unfair to us or beyond our abilities, he could lower it to an amount he considers fair and achievable. No other nations, no international authority, would need to sign off.

There is a discussion going on about how fair or achievable Obama’s goals were, or how much sacrifice the country should be willing to make to fulfill them. David Victor’s annotations are sympathetic to the view that Obama’s goals would require considerable economic sacrifice, while Paul Krugman believes that “We have almost all the technology we need, and can be quite confident of developing the rest.” (I haven’t studied the question enough to have a opinion worth sharing.)

But Trump is not engaging in that argument. He could simply tell the world what goals he considers fair and why. But he doesn’t. Instead, he’s withdrawing from the process of setting any goals at all.

Given that I could lower my pledge any time I find appropriate, the only reason I would withdraw from the entire pledge drive is if I acknowledge no responsibility to support the church financially. It would be tantamount to deciding to withdraw from the community.

That’s what Trump is doing here: He’s not defending our sovereignty or protecting our jobs or doing any of the other positive things his speech claims. He’s denying that we have any responsibility to work with the rest of the world in addressing one of the major problems of our era. He is, in essence, withdrawing from the community of nations.

On Memorial Day we ought to remember the dead, not celebrate the Empire.

I grew up in the era of the draft. Young men by the hundreds of thousands were remanded into the military under penalty of law. They were not sent to defend their homes and families against an invader, but to Vietnam to fight a war whose significance was hard to explain. (In retrospect, we lost and American life went on more-or-less as before. So what was that all about?)

Tens of thousands died there. Others came back alive, but left arms or legs behind. Some came back whole, but said little about their experiences afterwards. Some avoided the draft, either legally through student deferments (or whatever other loopholes were available when their names came up), or illegally, by going to Canada or Sweden, or (like Muhammad Ali) to prison.

I imagine that some must have had the kinds of positive experiences I liked to read about in formulaic World War II novels: They came of age. They discovered inside themselves a strength and courage that they had not previously been aware of. They bonded with other young men they probably would not have met any other way, and found friends for life.

This is all speculative for me, because I was never drafted. The draft wound down just in time to miss my age cohort: We had to register, and they held a lottery that told us what order we would have been drafted in, but no draft was held. So whether I would have died, lost a limb, locked the whole experience away in a dark corner of my mind, escaped to Toronto, gone or jail, or found myself — who can say? I was there for the beginning of the all-volunteer army, and I didn’t volunteer.

While I am personally grateful to have had the chance to make that choice, I am ambivalent about the policy that allowed me to do so. I sympathize with the Jeffersonian vision expressed in the opening of the Second Amendment: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State …”. Jefferson and Madison pictured a militia-based military, where ordinary people defended their towns and farms, rather than a standing army that could be sent on imperial missions, or maybe could develop its own interests, separate from the rest of the country. When soldiering becomes a profession, they realized, military and civilian cultures can start to go in different directions. And that’s dangerous “to the security of a free State”.

That divergence has been happening, slowly but steadily, for almost half a century now. It hurts America in two different ways. On the one hand, we get chicken hawks: neo-conservative intellectuals or tough-talking radio hosts, who know that neither they nor their sons or daughters will ever be called on to back up their geopolitical theories or their jingoistic rhetoric. If anyone ends up getting shot it, it will be the rural kid whose college fund vanished after Dad lost his factory job, or the ghetto kid who sees no other way out than to sign away a few years of his life and take a chance on losing all of it.

On the other hand, families who maintain a military tradition without financial necessity may come to see themselves not as representatives of America, but as a breed apart from it — a better, braver breed that has been forced to deal with violent reality in a way that the rest of us avoid, and who therefore deserve to rule. If a fascist takeover ever succeeds in this country, it will be due not just to some Trump-like clown at the top, but also to warriors up and down the line who no longer respect civilian America.

These thoughts come to me on Memorial Day, because I have no one in particular to remember: Not only have I never been shot at, but no one close to me has died in war. Our soldiers continue to serve in war zones in Afghanistan and in parts of Iraq and Syria, but no one I know is in danger. I care about those wars only to the extent that I choose to care. If I ignore them, they will not slap me in the face by claiming someone important to me.

Memorial Day didn’t used to be like this. It began after the Civil War, a conflict that killed about 2% of the population, and is still responsible for nearly half of the total of Americans who have ever died in battle. It began, in other words, at a time when nearly everyone had someone to remember.

I picture the early Memorial Days as bittersweet holidays, full of personal anecdotes about the dead, respect, regret, and a touch of gratitude for the chance to be living in peace. You might take your children to the cemetery to tell them stories about a father or uncle they remembered either dimly or not at all, while silently you hoped that you would never have to visit their graves on a some future Memorial Day. If you prayed, it was not for the greater glory of the United States, but for peace.

For many, perhaps most of us, particularly those in the educated or managerial classes, that personal connection has been lost. We have no graves to visit, and we never seriously worry about our children going to war, because that’s not their job. They’re destined for colleges and offices and the exciting digital future. Bullets and bombs are for the lower classes to deal with.

What replaces the personal is pageantry. Rather than a reminder of the cost of war, this holiday has become either a content-free weekend marking the start of summer, or a celebration of the military. Friday night, I saw on television an example that was simultaneously trivial and ridiculous: The Boston Red Sox played the Seattle Mariners, and both teams marked the Memorial Day weekend by wearing caps of Army green with camouflage visors. (The caps are being marketed; yesterday on a sidewalk, I passed a young man wearing one.)

The changes in Memorial Day are part of a larger growth of nationalistic ritual and worship of things military. I have always been uncomfortable singing the national anthem at baseball games (a practice that began during World War I, in the 1918 World Series; perhaps this misappropriation was the true origin of the curse that prevented both teams — Red Sox and Cubs — from winning a world championship for the rest of the 20th century), because I don’t see what is patriotic about playing or watching baseball. By now, of course, that practice extends to virtually all sports events, to the point that football quarterback Colin Kaepernick could create a national controversy simply by kneeling down.

After 9-11, many teams started putting a second patriotic song (“God Bless America” or “America the Beautiful”) somewhere else in the program, like during the 7th inning stretch. Last summer, the college-summer-league team in my town began including a moment where all veterans in the house were asked to stand and be applauded by the rest of us; not just on a particular day, but every game.

This Thursday, I was at the graduation ceremony of a nearby community college. It also began with the national anthem, included “God Bless America” later in the program, and had a moment when all graduating veterans stood to be applauded. Again, nationalism and militarism seemed pasted onto this event. Why not, for example, the state song or the college song? We were told that graduates came from many different nations: Why were they required to participate in an American patriotic ritual? (Why, for that matter, are baseball players, many of whom come from Latin American countries that have no cause to remember us or our soldiers kindly?) Trump’s planners even looked into the possibility of military vehicles adding spectacle to his inaugural parade, as they did to the old Soviet Mayday celebrations.

As actual soldiers become more and more distant, we are offered the Soldier and the Veteran as symbols. They are to be honored and worshiped, not empathized with, or even taken care of. (They are, in essence, getting the Jesus treatment: Worship Him as Lord, but pay no attention to the actual person. Ignore that liberal Sermon on the Mount, or much of anything else He said.) We are offered the Nation and the Military as objects of veneration, and encouraged to take an imperial pride in their world-bestriding power.

I find myself missing the bittersweet holiday Memorial Day started out to be. Wouldn’t it be appropriate to have a day where we appreciate the huge difference in scale between the Nation’s ambitions and the costs that will filter down into our own lives? Or, perhaps, to recognize the ways that we have been insulated from those costs, which have not vanished, but are borne by someone else instead?

Memorial Day itself is becoming something to mourn for. Once a bittersweet recognition of the toll assessed by military power, it now too often becomes a celebration of that power.

Step Around the Benghazi Trap

As the Trump scandals deepen, Democrats should learn from Republican mistakes: If you let your expectations get too far ahead of what’s known, confirmation bias can lead you into an a universe of alternative facts.


A few days before last November’s election, I saw a guy wearing an anti-Hillary t-shirt with the slogan “Benghazi: I will never forget!”. And it made me wonder: Of the things he will never forget about Benghazi, how many are imaginary? Will he always remember, for example, the stand-down order that was never given? Or that Clinton’s response to four American deaths was to ask “What difference does it make?

Benghazi was a real event, but eventually it got surrounded by a cloud of virtual events conjured up by conspiracy theorists. The virtual events — did you hear that Obama knew the attack was coming and intentionally did nothing? — stick in the mind so much better than the real ones. I suspect they’re the ones that guy (and the millions like him) will always remember.

Republicans went certifiably insane about Benghazi. When seven separate investigations failed to verify their wildest accusations against Obama and Clinton, they did the obvious thing: spent millions of tax dollars on an eighth one that also found nothing, in the vain hope that someday the same evidence would start saying something different.

Last week, a commenter on this blog asked how Democrats will know if we’ve gone down a similar rabbit-hole about Trump and Russia. I replied that it was way too early to make such a comparison, because we haven’t even completed one investigation of Trump/Russia, much less started our eighth. But the longer I thought about it, the more I wondered if there wasn’t something worth thinking about here: It may have taken four years and eight investigations for their Benghazi insanity to play out, but when exactly did Republicans start making the fatal mistake that eventually drove them insane?

Early days, I think. Right about where we are now.

And here’s what I think the fatal mistake was: convincing themselves that they already knew what had happened and how everything was going to play out. Within days or weeks, they knew that this was the big one, the scandal that was finally going to bring Obama down. Obama and Clinton had done something horrible here, even if nobody was sure exactly what it was. The point of investigating was to find the horrible thing they did, not to determine whether it existed. Any investigators who failed to find something bad enough to end both of their careers — and maybe send them to jail as a bonus — just hadn’t looked hard enough.

The point of me bringing this up isn’t to pooh-pooh the seriousness of what we’re finding out about Trump, or to suggest that an investigation shouldn’t be pursued with all possible vigor. I think Trump and a number of his people are acting like they’re guilty as hell. And the seriousness of the possibilities is undeniable: One of the determining factors in the 2016 election might have been a conspiracy between the winning candidate and a hostile foreign power. An unsavory Trump-Russia connection might go back decades, to Trump getting bailed out of his terrible investment decisions by money that Russian oligarchs needed to launder. Or maybe Trump campaign officials like Manafort and Flynn were Russian agents paid to manipulate the useful idiot who was their candidate.

Those possibilities can’t just be left out there for people to wonder about. If there’s even a tiny chance that one of them is true, a major investigation is necessary.

It’s possible that all this will come out quickly, in months or even weeks. Maybe Flynn or somebody will flip on Trump and produce a smoking gun that will either force him to resign or convince reluctant Republicans in Congress that they need to impeach him. Maybe Pence is in it up to his eyeballs and he’ll be forced out too.

It’s possible. But at this point, I don’t actually know any of those things. Trump does a lot of stuff I don’t understand, so he could be acting guilty for some ridiculous reason that isn’t illegal at all. Remember how adamant he was about his inaugural crowd being bigger than Obama’s, or how he didn’t really lose the popular vote? Maybe the Big Thing he’s hiding is some similarly ego-diminishing fact that anybody else would just own up to. Maybe the stuff that looks like a giant conspiracy is actually made up of dozens of unrelated instances of stupidity and incompetence. Maybe the corruption being covered up is ordinary money-grubbing by lower-level Trumpists, and doesn’t have anything to do with high-level treason.

That’s all possible too.

We need to find out. So we need to keep paying attention. All the avenues of investigation should be pursued as vigorously as possible, and everybody needs to remain vigilant against attempts to change the subject or derail the inquiries. We need to stay on guard against the worst: If the tension keeps ratcheting up inside the White House, eventually somebody is bound to suggest a Reichstag Fire — a real or fake attack on America that is supposed to make us circle the wagons around our Leader.

Or our enemies could decide that now, while the country is divided and so many of us are inclined to disbelieve anything our president says, is exactly the right time to launch a real attack.

As Americans, we need to keep the pressure on our elected representatives to take all this seriously. We need to stay ready to protest in the streets if it all goes wrong, just as Tunisians and Egyptians did to chase their corrupt leaders into retirement.

But while we’re making sure we’ll be geared up for whatever happens, we also need to make sure we’re staying in touch with reality, and that we’re maintaining the separation between what we know, what we suspect, and what we’re getting ready for just in case. We can’t let ourselves live in a speculative future where everything we’ve always suspected about Trump turns out to be true, and everyone who supported him finally has to admit that we were right.

If you get too attached to that future, you’ll most likely miss the turn when reality decides to go some other way. As the facts unfold, you’ll only see the ones that point in the direction you want to go. That’s a well-documented cognitive failing called confirmation bias. It’s not a conservative or liberal thing, it’s a human thing. Unless you’re some particularly well-designed artificial intelligence, you’re susceptible to it.

It’s already starting to happen in certain circles. Things that might eventually turn out to be true are being reported as if they are inevitably going to happen, or maybe have already happened. (Did you hear that Trump has already been indicted?)

It’s very satisfying to respond to Trump’s alternate reality (where his inaugural crowd was bigger than Obama’s, his electoral college margin was historically large, only fraud prevented him from winning the popular vote, and no politician — not even one who got assassinated, like Kennedy or Lincoln — has ever been treated so unfairly) with an anti-Trump alternate reality.

But as boring as it can be sometimes, we need to hang onto real reality. It sometimes takes a while to manifest itself, but in the long run real reality has a power that we want on our side.

It’s tempting to believe that we already know what’s going to happen: We know what James Comey is going to testify to, we know that Michael Flynn and/or Paul Manafort are going to flip on Trump and what they’re going to say; we know where the money trail is going to lead; and so on. We’re just waiting for that inevitable future to arrive, when Trump is ridden out of town on a rail.

But I don’t know any of that stuff, not yet. So I’m going to have to listen to the witnesses as they testify. I’m going to have to read the investigators’ reports as they come out.

Trump’s defenders are telling us that because we don’t already know that he did something wrong, we shouldn’t be investigating. The answer to that isn’t that we’re investigating because we do already know. The reason to investigate is because we don’t know. Trump’s defenders — other than possibly Trump himself and a small circle around him — don’t know either.

We should move forward, but with full knowledge of the uncertainties and ambiguities. That’s harder than moving forward with full certainty of where you’re going. But in the long run, it will keep you sane.

What is impeachment for?

Before Democrats can talk responsibly about impeaching Trump, we need to state some standards we’d be willing to apply to a Democratic president.


One of the more ridiculous quotes of the Obama era came from Republican Congressman Kerry Bentivolio of Michigan. It was the summer after Obama’s re-election and Bentivolio’s constituents were wondering about impeachment, like you do when you think the wrong guy won the election.

The Congressman responded that “it would be a dream come true” to impeach Obama, and claimed he had challenged lawyers to “tell me how I can impeach the President of the United States.” But the lawyers uncovered a pesky little problem: “Until we have evidence, you’re going to become a laughing stock if you’ve submitted the bill to impeach the president.”

Damn. You need evidence that he did something wrong. There’s always a catch somewhere.

The cheapening of impeachment. The mood was very different in 1973, when the House Judiciary Committee began investigating impeachment against President Nixon. Up to that point, there had been only one serious presidential impeachment case in American history, against Andrew Johnson in 1868. No one had come out of that affair looking good, and it made both sides cautious a century later. [1]

So the Nixon proceedings had an air of solemnity: History was watching, and whatever you did now would be what you were remembered for. Democrats, who held the majority in both houses in spite of Nixon’s 1972 landslide, bent over backwards to give Nixon at least the appearance of a fair hearing; Republicans likewise worked hard to create the impression that they were taking their duties seriously. Ultimately, it was three Republicans — Barry Goldwater, Hugh Scott, and John Rhodes — who went to the White House to tell Nixon it was time to resign.

A lot of Democrats had hated Nixon for a long time, but nobody crowed about “a dream come true”. Impeachment wasn’t something you started talking about as soon as your side lost. It was a constitutional last resort, and you didn’t break that glass unless it was really an emergency.

Impeachment still required a high bar in 1987, when Congress began investigating the Iran-Contra scandal. Iran-Contra was a big deal: A dozen major figures in the Reagan administration were indicted, including the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Adviser. [2] President Reagan apologized to the American people on national television: “A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.” Congress concluded that Reagan either knew about the wrong-doing or should have known. But he was not impeached.

It was Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998-1999 that changed all the rules. For Nixon, it was thought to be important that the special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, be a political independent who had voted for Nixon; that made it clear the President wasn’t being railroaded. But Clinton’s first prosecutor was a Republican (Robert Fiske), who was replaced mid-investigation by a more partisan Republican (Ken Starr). Starr published a report emphasizing the most salacious aspects of the case in lurid language, and frequently leaked sensational details to the press.

Throughout the process, the votes on impeachment were very close to party-line — which meant that the ultimate result was predetermined: The Republican-controlled House impeached Clinton by majority vote, but conviction in the Senate required a 2/3rds majority, which couldn’t happen without convincing a significant number of Democrats. Clinton served out his full two terms.

George W. Bush could have been impeached over violations of the Convention Against Torture or for deceptions in the process leading to the Iraq War. A resolution was introduced in the House, but it died in committee. The full House never voted on it.

Republicans often talked about impeaching President Obama, but their efforts never passed the laugh test: Like Bentivolio, they failed to come up with a plausible charge, much less assemble evidence to support it.

Standards. It’s easy to be a partisan hypocrite about impeachment. If the question is just “Do I want to get rid of this guy?”, then I’ll want to impeach presidents of the other party and defend presidents of my own. And after the plainly partisan nature of the Clinton impeachment, it’s tempting for Democrats to return tit for tat.

But cheap impeachments are bad for democracy. An election should mean something; it should make a decision that is not easily reversed. On the other hand, the Founders put impeachment into the Constitution for a reason. If Democrats are going to start another one any time soon, we owe it to the Republic to form a clear idea of what impeachment is for, and to state a non-partisan standard we’d be willing to stand by the next time a president from our side is in office.

The standards for impeachment are listed in the Constitution, but the statement is terse:

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Treason and bribery we all sort of understand, but it’s the “other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” that has been so maddeningly vague over the years.

A prime example is obstruction of justice — what Trump may have done when he fired Jim Comey. Obstruction was an impeachable offense when Nixon did it, so Republicans claimed it as an impeachable offense for Clinton. Democrats thought you needed more context; not all obstructions should count the same: Clinton was accused of inducing Monica Lewinsky to lie about their affair; Nixon was accused of doing a long list of things — conspiring with others, concocting cover stories, destroying evidence, asking the CIA to interfere with the FBI — to block the investigation of a burglary intended to help his re-election campaign. It didn’t seem fair to lump the two in the same category and proceed from there.

Now that it’s a Republican in the dock, expect the parties to switch places: Democrats will insist that obstruction-as-impeachable-offense is now well established; Republicans will want to say, “Wait a minute.”

If we’re not all just going to run to our respective partisan banners, we need think this through from the beginning.

What is impeachment for? The Founders knew that occasionally the voters would screw up. Bad presidents were inevitable, which is why John Adams talked about forming “a government of laws, and not of men“. The Constitutional system created multiple centers of power that could check and balance each other. The hope was that the country would be strong enough to ride out a bad presidency.

So the ordinary way to get rid of a bad president is to wait for his term to expire and elect somebody else. Impeachment is only for cases where that solution just isn’t adequate.

That’s why treason and bribery are specifically mentioned. If a president is just bad at his job, you can usually live with that until the next election. (After all, the country survived eight years of George W. Bush.) But if the power of the office is being controlled by someone else — by a hostile foreign power (treason) or a wealthy special interest (bribery) — then we really can’t wait that long. (That’s even more true today than in the 1700s, because of the immediacy of nuclear weapons.) So I interpret “other high crimes and misdemeanors” as “other offenses too urgent to put off until the next election”.

The most obvious offense that you can’t put off until the next election is anything that subverts the next election. So if a president is using his or her power to alter the political system — like burglarizing the other party’s files or making deals with foreign powers to hack their computer systems — that also should be impeachable. [3] Other things that could be impeachable in the same way are shutting down hostile newspapers, or preventing legal voters from casting their ballots.

Since the separation of powers is what we’re counting on to keep a bad president in line, anything that usurps the power of the other branches has to be impeachable, unless the breach can be repaired some less drastic way. [4]

Along the same lines, the impeachment process itself has to be protected. So obstruction of justice needs to be an impeachable offense, if the obstructed investigation concerns an impeachable offense. [5]

Finally, there are offenses that have no other enforcement mechanism. For example, violations of the Emoluments Clause, which there is a good case Trump is guilty of. Bush-administration ethics lawyer Richard Painter wrote: “The only remedy for a serious violation of the Emoluments Clause is impeachment.” [6]

Application to Trump. Under these standards, it seems obvious to me that the House Judiciary Committee should be investigating impeachment, because there are viable accusations of impeachable offenses: most obviously the emoluments, but possibly more directly dangerous things. Any collusion with Russia to hack the Democrats would be impeachable, as well as obstruction of justice if it was intended to shelter allies who did collude. (Whether Trump was involved directly in the collusion wouldn’t matter; if he later suspected what his associates did and tried to protect them, that would be impeachable.)

At this point, whether I would support an impeachment vote in the House or conviction by the Senate would depend on what those investigations turned up. But there are definitely things to investigate.


[1] Johnson had been the slave-owning Democrat Lincoln put on his ticket in the name of national unity. After the assassination, he was an outsider dealing with Lincoln’s overwhelmingly Republican Congress.

If you’ve ever wondered why vice presidents are such yes-men, Johnson’s example explains why. When the VP has very different views than the president, it’s practically an invitation to assassins. John Wilkes Booth really did succeed in changing the direction of the country.

[2] Both were pardoned by President Bush before they served jail time.

[3] By contrast, Clinton’s extra-marital affair was just embarrassing, not a threat to the Republic. He finished his term, and there was a peaceful transfer of power to the other party after the next election.

[4] Republicans claimed that Obama’s executive orders on immigration usurped the power of Congress. So they sued, won their case, and Obama obeyed the judgment of the courts. But if Obama had instead said, “Screw the judges, I’m going to do what I want.”, then impeachment would have been Congress’ only recourse.

[5] That leaves out the obstruction charge against Clinton, but creates an interesting test scenario: What if the reason Trump wanted to stop Comey’s investigation wasn’t that he himself had done anything wrong, but to prevent Comey from catching his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who was guilty of some financial chicanery? I’m leaning towards the idea that Trump should be prosecuted for that after leaving office, but not impeached.

[6] Naturally, if the money the President receives from a foreign government is in return for some favor, then it’s already impeachable as a bribe.

Are Congressional Republicans Patriotic or Not?

Trump obstructs justice, and his fellow Republicans still stand behind him. At what point, if ever, will Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell begin defending the Republic?


We’ve already been through a number of explanations for why Jim Comey was fired on Tuesday, beginning with the improbable story that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was so incensed by Comey’s unfair treatment of Hillary Clinton (“we do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation”) that he wrote a memo that led to Comey’s firing; Trump and Attorney General Sessions took no initiative, they simply rubberstamped Rosenstein’s recommendation.

But by Thursday that narrative had crumbled, and Trump was telling NBC’s Lester Holt he had intended to fire Comey “regardless of recommendation” (making liars out of all his own spokespeople, including Vice President Pence). He went on to describe a very odd and disturbing scene: A week after the inauguration, he had dinner with Comey; Trump saw this as Comey asking to stay on as FBI director. (That in itself would be odd; FBI directors have 10-year terms and only one has ever been fired — an exception that was truly exceptional. In general, FBI directors just stay on after administrations change; they do not need to ask.) During that dinner, Trump asked if he was under investigation and Comey assured him he was “in the clear”.

This came along with other unforced admissions that Lawfare’s Bob Bauer analyzes like this:

The picture that Mr. Trump has managed to create so far consists of the following:

  • The admission that he sought repeated assurances about his legal exposure in an ongoing criminal investigation

  • The pursuit of those reassurances at a time when he was quite actively holding open the possibility that Mr. Comey might not hold onto his job. (Apparently one of these conversations took place over dinner—as it was being served, was the President making it clear that Mr. Comey might have “to sing for his supper”?)

  • The admission that in firing Mr. Comey, he was moved decisively by his frustration over the FBI’s handling of the Russia probe investigation.

  • The President’s repeated very public statements, heard by all, including those charged with investigating the matter, that he views the Russia probe as having no merit.  Responsible for the faithful execution of the laws and the integrity of the system of justice, Mr. Trump has chosen to actively dispute the basis for an ongoing FBI investigation that affects his interests.

  • The repeated adjustments to the story the White House originally told about the circumstances surrounding the decision to dismiss Mr. Comey. As noted in the earlier posting, it is not advantageous to somebody under suspicion to be altering his story—or, in this case, changing it in every material detail.

So that’s not what his enemies accuse him of, that’s what he himself has admitted to. Law professor Laurence Tribe comments:

To say that this does not in itself rise to the level of “obstruction of justice” is to empty that concept of all meaning.

Bauer’s only argument that this behavior might not constitute obstruction is based on Trump’s ignorance of and disrespect for the ordinary limits of a president’s authority:

The President may have landed himself in these difficulties simply because of his insensitivity to the requirements for safeguarding the integrity of the legal process. That is to say, he may not have intended to commit anything like obstruction, or any other crime, but has instead blundered into this position because he does not recognize or respect norms and does not appreciate legal process or institutional boundaries.

Helen Klein Murillo reviews the legal standards for obstruction and concludes not that Trump is innocent, but that he would be hard to prosecute.

Even if [Trump or Attorney General Sessions] had other reasons or goals—including perfectly lawful ones, such as concerns about the public’s perception of the FBI and the Director—if obstructing or impeding the Russia investigation was a goal, that would constitute obstruction of justice. Therefore, inquiries as to whether Trump’s conduct amount to obstruction will center on his motives.

However, the statutory bar is exceedingly high.

Murillo concludes that there is really only one body that can handle this case: Congress, as an impeachment hearing. Tribe agrees.

Some are arguing that we’re not at the point of impeachment yet, because the damage done by Comey’s firing will be minimal if Trump just appoints a replacement with unassailable integrity. Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican who sometimes seems open to questioning Trump, says: “Let’s see who he nominates to replace Comey.”

But Matt Yglesias believes that no replacement can undo the damage already done:

For Senate Republicans, the idea of the Good Comey Replacement serves a critical psychological and political role. It allows them to acknowledge that there was something alarming and suspicious about Comey’s dismissal without committing them to a fight with the Trump administration. They simply need to convince the White House to nominate someone well-qualified and then move on to cutting taxes.

But the Comey firing bell can’t be unrung. The independence of the FBI is now inherently compromised. And faced with a White House that’s willing to violate the norms governing presidential involvement in the investigative process, either there will be the forceful pushback from the legislative branch that most Republicans want to avoid or else oversight of the Trump administration will be woefully lacking. There’s no middle path.

If Congress just OKs a new director — whoever it may be — and moves on, then we are in a new reality: A president can fire anyone who investigates him without any real consequence. That’s never been true in America before, and it would be a big step towards turning us into a Potemkin Republic, like Putin’s Russia, where we maintain all the facades of democracy and the rule of law, but in reality the leader simply does whatever he wants. This goes along with other new realities we’ve seen Congress accept since January 20, like this one: A president no longer bears any responsibility to prove to the public that he is not corrupt, but can openly profit off his presidency — perhaps even taking money directly from foreign governments — while keeping the full extent of that profit secret.

Encroachments like this will continue until Congress draws a line. At root, Trump is a bully, and that is how bullies behave: They stop when someone stops them, not before.

Recall that during the campaign Trump said: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” At the time, that sounded like hyperbole — a joke. A year from now it might not. Because that’s also how bullies behave: They joke about things — and then they do them.

Unfortunately, Congress is controlled by Republicans, who have shown no interest in standing up to Trump no matter what he does. Occasionally a few will shake their heads, or express “concern”. (Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr describes himself as “troubled” by the Comey firing. Senator Ben Sasse is “disappointed” by the timing of it.) But they will not demand Trump’s tax returns, or question the legal basis of his attack on Syria, or call for an independent special prosecutor, or do anything else that has the potential to call Trump to account.

We all imagine that there is a line somewhere, a boundary between what will be tolerated and what won’t. But then Trump crosses what we thought was a line, nothing happens, and we start imagining a new line. Nicholas Kristoff writes:

For months, as I’ve reported on the multiple investigations into Trump-Russia connections, I’ve heard that the F.B.I. investigation is by far the most important one, incomparably ahead of the congressional inquiries. I then usually asked: So will Trump fire Comey? And the response would be: Hard to imagine. The uproar would be staggering. Even Republicans would never stand for that.

Alas, my contacts underestimated the myopic partisanship of too many Republicans. Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, spoke for many of his colleagues when he scoffed at the furor by saying, “Suck it up and move on.”

Will it be different if Trump defies court orders? If he starts a war against North Korea without consulting Congress? If Jared and Ivanka lead a takeover some major defense contractor? If critical journalists like David Fahrenthold start disappearing or mysteriously dropping dead? If Trump cancels future elections and declares himself President for Life?

You’d like to think there’s a line, a point at which elected Republicans will start to defend the Republic. But is there? Another former Justice Department official who appears to have been fired while investigating the Trump administration, Preet Bharara, writes in today’s Washington Post:

History will judge this moment. It’s not too late to get it right, and justice demands it.

But it’s not at all clear that justice’s demands will be satisfied. By now, I think we have to start questioning the patriotism of people like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. Max Boot, who says he recently left the Republican Party “after a lifetime as a loyal member”, sums it up like this:

Like other conservatives, I care about tax cuts and military spending increases. But I care even more about the rule of law — the only thing that prevents our country from going the way of Venezuela, Russia or Zimbabwe. … While the president has the authority to fire the F.B.I. director, to do so under these circumstances and for these reasons is a gross violation of the trust citizens place in the president to ensure that the laws “be faithfully executed.” If this is not a prima facie case of obstruction of justice — an impeachable offense — it’s hard to know what is. Republicans would understand this and say so if these actions were taken by President Hillary Clinton. But when it comes to President Trump, they have checked their principles at the Oval Office door.

Recalling the three Republican leaders who went to the White House to tell President Nixon it was over, Boot wonders:

Are there even three principled Republicans left who will put their devotion to the Republic above their fealty to the Republican Party?

I fear the answer to that question.

Nicholas Kristof sounds a similar note:

[T]his is the moment of truth for G.O.P. moderates like Senators Susan Collins, Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, who may hold decisive power. Will they align with George Washington’s vision of presidents as servants of the people or with Trump’s specter of His Sacred Majesty, the Big Man of America? Will they stand for justice, or for obstruction of it?

I suspect they will make noises about justice, but in the end not stand up for it, at least not this time. And then, after Trump does something even worse in a month or two, there will be another moment of truth, and then one after that.

At some point will the damage to the Republic be too much for Congressional Republicans to rationalize and ignore? We can only hope they reach that point before Trump starts shooting people on 5th Avenue, and before he gets bold enough to simply ignore Congress altogether.

Much Ado About Religious Liberty

When you back a conman, eventually you get conned.


Long-time readers already know how I feel about the corruption of the terms religious freedom and religious liberty in recent years, which I put bluntly in 2013 in “Religious Freedom means Christian Passive-Aggressive Domination“. In 2015, I explained that bigotry in America has always hidden behind religious justifications in “You Don’t Have to Hate Anybody to be a Bigot“. So if you think your religious reasons to discriminate against people because of their sexuality or their gender identity are substantively different from the reasons people gave to support slavery or Jim Crow, you need to study history more closely.

That’s why I’ve never been moved by the plight of conservative Christian pharmacists forced to provide contraception they disapprove of, or Christian florists who get sued for discriminating against same-sex couples, or Christian employers whose workers might use their health insurance in ways forbidden by the employer’s doctrine.

Non-Christians, or even Christians from unpopular denominations, bump up against this kind of difficulty all the time — and get no sympathy from Baptists or Catholics: The Hindu steakhouse waitress can quit, but she can’t insist on keeping her job without serving cow flesh. A Jehovah’s Witness EMT can’t refuse to give blood transfusions, and a Christian Scientist nurse can’t get away with just praying for her patients.

People from less popular faiths routinely pay taxes to support things they disapprove of: Pacifist Quakers finance wars, vegetarians pay meat inspectors, orthodox Jews provide food stamps so that people can buy bacon, and so on. The most extreme case is that of atheists, who are forced to carry around (and even distribute to others) pieces of paper saying “In God We Trust”. Imagine the outcry if Christians had to use money that proclaimed “God is dead”.

In short, Christian conservatives imagine that they’re persecuted, but in fact they want special rights. They think that the law should give their moral quandaries unique consideration while ignoring everyone else’s comparable concerns. And it’s even OK if their special rights come at the expense of people who don’t share their beliefs: Employees should have to pay for their own contraception, and if they have to search for a drug store that will supply it, too bad for them. Gays shouldn’t be able to participate in the economy like anybody else, but should always have to check whether their business is welcome. Women who have been getting publicly-funded mammograms or Pap smears at a convenient local clinic should have to go somewhere else; not because they have moral objections to Planned Parenthood, but because someone else does — someone whose beliefs get more respect under the law.

So you can imagine how I was dreading the ceremony at the White House Thursday, when Trump would unveil his “Presidential Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty“. But in spite of previously leaked versions, the final order was surprisingly lightweight. Paul Waldman says it well:

But when the final order was written, it turned out to be a whole lot of nothing. Instead of creating broad exemptions from laws and regulations for conservative Christians who want to discriminate against LGBT people or not follow the law on providing contraception benefits in employee health plans, it merely instructed various departments to enforce current law or issue guidance to other departments.

Waldman finds this to be typical of Trump’s over-hyped executive orders (at least the ones unrelated to immigration):

Over and over, the White House takes some issue that Trump has promised to aggressively act on, and then issues an executive order that studies it, examines it or investigates it but doesn’t actually do anything about it.

If you want to know just how vacuous the order was, consider this: The ACLU decided it’s not worth suing over.

“Today’s executive order signing was an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome,” ACLU director Anthony Romero said in a statement. “After careful review of the order’s text we have determined that the order does not meaningfully alter the ability of religious institutions or individuals to intervene in the political process.”

And in spite of the smiling faces at the White House, a lot of Trump’s supporters noticed the bait-and-switch he had played on them. National Review called the order “dangerous nothingness“. The Alliance Defending Freedom said the order “recalls” Trump’s campaign promises “but leaves them unfulfilled”.

Strange how that works: When you back a conman, sometimes you get conned. The Little Sisters of the Poor give Trump a great photo op, and he gives them … what, exactly?

Right after the election, I listed a number of things I’d be watching for in a Trump administration. One of them was “taking credit for averting dangers that never existed”. That’s what this is: Maybe you’ve been imagining that Christian preachers are afraid to express their political views because they live in fear of over-zealous persecution by the IRS. (I can barely imagine what Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson have been holding back.) Well, you can stop now, because this order puts an end to that non-existent practice.

Not that I think Trump’s evangelical supporters should have gotten more. They want unfair advantages over the rest of us, so I’m not crying that they didn’t get any on Thursday.

But conservative Christians might well ask what I want out of them. It’s a fair question, and the answer is simple: I want them to state a definition of religious freedom that is not tied to their specific doctrines or issues (like same-sex marriage or abortion); that applies equally to everyone; and that they would be willing to defend not just as it applies to Christians they agree with, but also to Christians they think are heretics, to Muslims, Hindus, New Agers, atheists, and everyone else.

Lincoln said, “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.” That’s the attitude I’m looking for: Don’t just tell me the rights you want for yourself, tell me what rights you are willing to defend for others.

Climate of Propaganda

Bret Stephens’ climate column serves one very important purpose: It illustrates Jason Stanley’s model of propaganda.


Few issues in American politics are as frustrating as climate change. It’s a real concern with potentially catastrophic consequences. The basic scientific description of the problem — burning fossil fuels increases the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which warms the planet by blocking infrared radiation from escaping into space — is solid and hasn’t changed for decades. Every few years, the public seems to be getting energized about the problem, and it looks like we might finally get serious about taking action. But then we don’t.

At the moment we’re in one of our hopeless phases, where science-deniers are in power and we have to focus on preserving what little progress we’ve made rather than building on it. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere goes up every year. That’s not a conjecture or the result of some complicated computer model, it’s a measurement that gets made regularly by a NOAA laboratory on a mountaintop in Hawaii.

If the overall situation is frustrating in one way, attempting to change people’s minds about climate change is frustrating in a different way. You can go into an argument feeling that you have facts and logic on your side, and feel the same way afterwards, but at the same time realize that you didn’t convince anybody. Too often, environmentalists come out of a debate with a feeling of “What just happened?”

A good case in point was the discussion sparked ten days ago by Bret Stephens’ introductory NYT column “Climate of Complete Certainty“, which raised the specter of “overweening scientism” — radical environmentalists who claim 100% certainty for their predictions of global catastrophe and are “censoriously asserting [their] moral superiority and treating skeptics as imbeciles and deplorables”. The problem, in Stephens’ presentation, isn’t the scientists doing honest research on the climate, it’s the people pushing “ever harder to pass climate legislation” and “demanding abrupt and expensive changes in public policy”.

In many ways, the column was just another page from the science-denial playbook written in the 1970s by the tobacco industry: Emphasize the uncertainty of scientific findings, and from there argue that any action would be too hasty. We shouldn’t ban tobacco products, or restrict where smokers can light up, or put excessive taxes on cigarettes, or hold tobacco companies liable for public health problems, or even change our own individual smoking habits, because there’s still doubt. Of course we should take action once it’s been proven that tobacco causes cancer, but until the evidence is so conclusive that even the Tobacco Institute is convinced — which it never will be — we should wait and see. [1]

So Stephens isn’t anti-climate-research, he’s just criticizing the people who want to take action based on that research.

Or is he? There’s a puzzling vagueness to the column that made it very hard to argue against. Stephens didn’t name any of the “overweening” people who claim total certainty for uncertain things, or even identify what those claims are. The only specific example in the piece is a lengthy analogy that has no direct connection to the climate: the data-driven managers of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, who believed they were coasting to victory. They were wrong, so maybe the data-driven predictions of unnamed environmentalists are wrong too.

In other words, Stephens’ column is a very good example of that what-just-happened phenomenon. When I first read it, it seemed to be making some larger point that cried out for refutation. But the objectionable point had a vaporous quality; it didn’t seem to be contained in any particular sentence that I could quote and refute. Take this one for example:

Anyone who has read the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change knows that, while the modest (0.85 degrees Celsius, or about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit) warming of the earth since 1880 is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming, much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities. That’s especially true of the sophisticated but fallible models and simulations by which scientists attempt to peer into the climate future.

Like a number of other critics, I might argue with the characterization of 1.5 degrees in 130 years as “modest” — until humanity started affecting in the climate, a change like that usually took millennia rather than decades — but overall, the statement is correct: It’s indisputable that we’re changing the climate, but it’s a lot iffier to predict exactly how fast that change will play out or which catastrophic events will happen when. For example, the land-borne ice sheets in Greenland or Antarctica might trickle slowly into the oceans and raise sea level over centuries, or one or more of them might suddenly slide into the water like an ice cube dropped into a glass of Coke. Nobody really knows.

Andrew Revkin, an environmental reporter that Stephens quotes admiringly (but who believes that “uncertainty, informed and bounded by science, is actionable knowledge” [2]), notes that changes in rainfall patterns are hard to predict: Some models show droughts in sub-Saharan Africa, while others foresee rainfall increasing.

I don’t have any trouble acknowledging that kind of uncertainty, and neither do most of the environmental writers I follow. So why do I feel like something Stephens’ column demands an argument?

What we’re seeing here is a masterful example of propaganda, as described in Jason Stanley’s How Propaganda Works, which I reviewed in 2015.

If your target audience has a flawed ideology, then your propaganda doesn’t have to lie to them. The lie, in some sense, has already been embedded and only needs to be activated.

What’s being activated in Stephens’ column is a stereotype that Fox News, talk radio, and other conservative media has been drilling into its audience for years: Liberals don’t respect you. They look down on you, they think you’re stupid, and because they’re educated they think they can fool you with technical mumbo-jumbo that isn’t true.

That’s the point of talking about the Clintons and using words like deplorable. By doing so, Stephens invokes a previously successful application of the stereotype. You know the way you resent and distrust Hillary? You should feel that way about anybody who wants action on climate change.

It’s also the point of offering no other examples, and no examples at all from the environmental movement. Who does the stereotype apply to? Whoever you need it to apply to. If listening to Bill Nye or Bill McKibben makes you feel stupid, apply it to them. Al Gore, sure. Your niece who just got back from college, or that know-it-all at work, absolutely. Even real climate researchers like Jim Hansen and Michael Mann — the kind of scientists Stephens’ column seems explicitly not to criticize — can be lumped in if you need to.

If Stephens actually made a case against any of those people, that attack could be fact-checked and refuted. If he specified some particular prediction as over-the-top doomsaying, that prediction could either be defended or it could be demonstrated that the real leaders of the environmental movement do acknowledge the uncertainties involved. But a charge made with complete vagueness, one left hanging for its target audience to apply as it sees fit, can’t be answered in any logical way.

That’s how propaganda works. And in particular, that’s the way you will see propaganda appear in conservative columns in respectable mainstream outlets like The New York Times, or in public speeches by supposedly respectable politicians. The real dirty work has been done elsewhere. The lies and stereotypes have already been planted: Immigrants are criminals who endanger your family. Muslims want to take over America, not assimilate into it; and they all support terrorism whether they admit it or not. The poor are too lazy to work, but want you to support them anyway. Blacks are inferior and can’t really compete with whites, so they want the government to take your job and give it to them.

Anyone who wants to take advantage of such notions doesn’t have to state them in places where critics might demand evidence or poke holes in the argument. Like Bret Stephens, the propagandist just has to allude to them vaguely. The target audience will receive the message, and will enjoy the spectacle of opponents flailing vainly to refute what was never really said.


[1] The tobacco playbook and how it has been used in all sorts of controversies over the last half century has been described in two books I’ve reviewed here in the past: Merchants of Doubt and Doubt is Their Product.

[2] I wish he’d stated that in less complicated language, because it’s a point that needs more emphasis in the national debate, and doesn’t require any difficult scientific analysis.

In everyday life, we deal with uncertainty in two very different ways, depending on the circumstances. When we don’t know what might happen, sometimes we freeze until we do know. If, for example, you have a peanut allergy and you don’t know whether the salad the waitress brought you includes some peanut-derived ingredient, you don’t just eat it and hope you don’t wind up in the ER. You send the waitress to talk to the chef, and you don’t do anything until she gets back.

But in other situations, we respond to uncertainty by preparing for all plausible outcomes. When your child is born, you have no idea whether she’ll want to go to college or what college will cost in 18 years. But you don’t wait 16 or 17 years until you have a clearer idea of what she’ll need; if you do, it’ll already be too late to start saving. The prudent thing is to start that college fund as soon as you can, even though you can’t be 100% certain it’s necessary.

If you’re not sure whether you left the oven on, you don’t start preparing for the possibility that your house might be about to burn down; you stop everything and go home to check, or have someone else check. But if you’re not sure whether your department is about to have a round of lay-offs, you don’t freeze until you know for sure; you start getting your resume in order and checking the temperature of the job market, just in case.

This isn’t fancy research-scientist talk; this is how ordinary people live. Sometimes uncertainty freezes you; sometimes it springs you into action.

We’ve let the fossil-fuel lobby get away with the argument that on climate change, uncertainty should freeze us. (Nobody can tell us exactly when Miami will be underwater, so let’s not do anything.) But this point didn’t make sense when the tobacco industry used it — you can’t be sure cigarettes will give you cancer, so keep puffing away — and it doesn’t make sense now. Certainly that’s not how the Pentagon or the insurance industry is thinking about climate change; they’re planning to live in the future however it turns out, so they’re preparing for the possibilities.

That’s just common sense. Rising oceans, more violent weather, changes in rainfall patterns — these are more like your daughter’s college fund or the possible lay-off than like the salad dressing that might contain peanut oil: Even if they’re uncertain, they’re significant possibilities that we need to be preparing against. If there were some quick way to find out for sure what’s going to happen — asking the chef, checking the oven — maybe it would make sense to freeze and wait; but nobody’s come up with a way to do that, so our preparations have to move forward without that certainty.