The Casual Blog

Tag: Republicans

A modest proposal for reining in the plutocracy: the decency test

Osprey this week at Lake Jordan

These last few months of the Covid-19 pandemic have been a crucible of sorts.  We’ve all been tested in various ways, and learned a few things.  If we didn’t know already, we’ve learned that our President has no idea what he’s doing, or even the idea that he should be doing something.  Instead, faced with a serious problem, he looks for a scapegoat to blame (China . . . the World Health Organization . . . Obama).  He still thinks like a reality TV huckster, uninterested in anything except getting as much attention as possible.   

He is what he is, and with any luck we’ll soon vote him out and our heads will stop spinning from his crazy rants.  But we’ll still have the question, how did this happen?   How did we elect as President the rottenest person ever?  The common wisdom these days tends to focus on the unholy alliance of right wing evangelicals and economically frustrated blue collar workers, with both groups fearful of social change and angry at diminishing opportunities.

But there’s clearly another important element that hasn’t been examined as much:  super rich Republicans.  In a recent piece in The New Yorker,  Evan Osnos attempted to uncover why Republicans in the richest part of Connecticut decided to support Trump.  He focused on Greenwich, CT, the epicenter of homes of the hedge fund moguls and other Wall Street financial types who make annual sums that stagger the mind, reaching the hundreds of millions of dollars.  

It comes as no surprise that these people are mostly Republicans, but their value system as recently as a generation ago had an element of modesty, charity, and noblesse oblige.  Osnos’s investigation indicated that their support for Trump went hand-in-hand with a loss of those values.  

Eaglets this week at Shelley Lake

To the extent there’s a theory underlying the Trumpism of the super rich, it appears to be an extreme libertarianism in which the only unit of measure is the individual, and the only value is wealth accumulation.  They think there’s no such thing as the public interest, and greed is, for them, good.  The public issue of primary concern to them is lowering their own taxes — that is, keeping as much as possible for themselves and contributing as little as possible to the public good. 

I am not without sympathy for the super rich.  A few of them are not Republicans and did not support Trump.  A few of them are intelligent, thoughtful, and funny.  And they all have some problems (divorce, cancer, having teenagers) that are as miserable for them as for the rest of us. But it’s a huge mistake to think that the super rich are somehow deserving of their advantages.  

We’ve been deeply conditioned to think that being wealthy is a good indicator of attributes like intelligence and hard work.  But it’s not true.  Most intelligent, hard-working people never get rich.  The truth is, getting rich is mostly a matter of luck.  If you’ve made it, chances are you hit your first jack pot the day you were born by having the right parents, who had  excellent genes to bequeath and fine positions in the existing pecking order.  

You probably kept on your lucky streak with good schools, good summer camps, and top-drawer undergraduate and graduate schools.  You may have worked hard, and it may have felt like your accomplishments were simply the result of all your own hard work. But you had a lot of people helping, showing you what was required — what to work on, how long, and how hard.  Also, you may not even have noticed, but there were a lot of not very prosperous people all around you making sure you were well fed, clothed, housed, and otherwise prepped for success.  

Great blue heron at Shelley Lake

Of course, it helps to be in the right place at the right time, like starting a Wall Street career just as regulatory oversight of financial institutions was geared way down.  There are many different kinds of luck that combine for mega wealth.  Though it should be noted, as Osnos does, that insider trading and fraud also helped in building some of the most fabulous fortunes.     

But even if being wealthy were a good indicator of inherent superiority, rather than mostly luck, there would still be good reasons to call out the super rich Trump supporters.  Their value system is deplorable — self-centered, like those of a young child in Kohlberg’s system.  Their orientation is exclusively on their own advantage; other people don’t matter.  This is unfortunate for them, of course, since they miss out on a lot of what’s really beautiful and rewarding in life.  But once they decide to take a role in public affairs, it’s a problem for all of us.  

As the Koch brothers and their rich buddies have proven, it’s surprisingly easy, if you have unlimited funds, to spread disinformation and buy influence.  With personal wealth as a primary value, they change the laws so they can more easily make and keep more money.  They get other laws that minimize the chance of any progressive change in public policy.  For example, they pay for and get lower taxes, deregulation, sycophantic judges, and gerrymandered elections.  

As the super rich contribute less and less in taxes, public infrastructure and institutions, like roads, bridges, and schools, are defunded and fall into disrepair.  Crumbling infrastructure is actually helpful, since it provides them with another argument “proving” government is ineffective.  Interestingly, according to Osnos, Connecticut, with so many super rich citizens, has some of the worst roads in the country.  Perhaps that’s not a problem, if you’ve got a helicopter, a yacht, and a jet.  Meanwhile, they make sure nothing gets done to address the worsening existential disaster of a planet getting steadily hotter.

The extreme inequality in American society is disturbing, but it wouldn’t be as frightening if the super rich had a different value system.  It’s possible to imagine super rich people using their wealth not just to seek further comforts and advantages for themselves, but also to address the needs of other humans less fortunate and a planet in dire peril.  Before the Reagan years, that was the norm, and it could be again.  Or else we could proceed along our current path towards a Hobbesian war of all against all,  The Hunger Games, and Blade Runner 2049.   

So how do we stop the bleeding?  Elizabeth Warren’s idea of a wealth tax made a lot of sense, but I have a simpler and more fun idea:  a decency test.  Every head of household making more than three hundred times the median annual salary (that’s around $10,000,000 a year) would need to give non-reprehensible answers to five simple questions.  First, we give a little shot of truth serum.  The time allowed for the test is 2 minutes.  You may start now.

Using a number 2 pencil, please answer each of the following questions by choosing just one of the four possible responses.

  1.  I believe the most important policy objective for our government is to:

a.  Implement a fair system of public health.

b.  Assure a quality education for all children.

c.  Protect public safety and stop useless wars.

d.  Cut my taxes.

  1. My greatest objection to our current public policy is:

a. Not enough is being done to reduce infant mortality.

b.  There’s no system to assure adequate basic nutrition.

c. We don’t have reliable public transportation.

d.  There have not been enough cuts to my taxes.

  1. The moral quality that best describes the way I relate to other people is:

a.  Honesty.

b.  Reasonableness.

c.  Kindness and compassion.

d.  Greed and indifference. 

  1. If I could have just one wish to improve the world, it would be to:

a.  Eliminate the risk of nuclear war.

b.  Stop global warming.

c.  Eliminate racial prejudice and work to correct the harm it has caused.

d.  Eliminate all taxes.

     5.  Other than lowering taxes, my chief hope for making this country a better place for all is that we:

a.  Consider the welfare of those less fortunate.

b.  End the unequal treatment of women.

c.  Improve the fairness of our justice system.

d.  This question makes no sense. 

If you answered d to questions 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5, you are going to Hell.  Just kidding!  But you will have to pay a special tax of 95% of all your accumulated wealth, with new yearly assessments until you pass the decency test.  These funds will be used for improved health care, better schools, more reliable public transportation, green energy, and other desperately needed public initiatives.  We hope you see the light, but if not, we won’t feel too bad, since we’ll see your money doing good things.  Good luck!  

The end of fall, a photo contest, a piano event, and considering impeachment


The fall colors have faded here in recent days, and the trees have dropped most of their leaves.  Most mornings I stood in the cold by Shelley Lake with my camera waiting for the first light and the birds. A few minutes after sunrise, the Canada geese took off with much honking and splashing.  For a few minutes, the calm water reflected the forest colors. Every so often, a bald eagle swept over the water, probably looking for a fish, but not catching one when I was looking. The great blue herons changed fishing spots every ten or fifteen minutes, while flocks of ring billed gulls wheeled about.  I enjoyed watching the birds and got a few shots I liked, which are here.  

I’ve been looking at a lot of nature photography as part of the Carolina Nature Photographers Association annual members’ choice contest, which I entered this year.  I certainly learned something in the process of choosing and polishing a few images, and am learning more from reviewing hundreds of competing landscapes, wildlife shots, and macro subjects.  It would be gratifying to place in this competition, but I’m not counting on it, since there are quite a few excellent images that could arguably be viewed as the best.


I also learned some things from my first piano performance at Presto, a group of amateur pianists that regularly play for each other in members’ houses.  While playing the piano has been one of the joys of my life, I’ve had few opportunities to share the music that I’ve loved with people who feel similarly.  I’ve viewed engaging with Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, and others primarily as music therapy, bringing me happiness and sanity.  But music is inherently social, and sharing it is important.

The Presto group in Raleigh includes some nice people who enjoy classical music and play at various levels, including some who are highly accomplished.  I felt some trepidation as I took on a fairly demanding piece, Chopin’s Nocturne in D flat, Op. 27, No. 2. But preparing helped me see some new aspects of it.  The actual performance was not entirely fun. At one point I felt like the hands attached to my arms were not my own, and they were not playing my best. But it wasn’t a disaster, and I appreciated several kind words.    


Meanwhile, I’ve been following the Trump impeachment proceedings with a particular question in mind:  what is the deal with Republican leaders? For my friends who are occupied with matters more important than American politics, here’s the nutshell from the new House impeachment report:

The impeachment inquiry has found that President Trump, personally and acting through agents within and outside of the U.S. government, solicited the interference of a foreign government, Ukraine, to benefit his reelection.  In furtherance of this scheme, President Trump conditioned official acts on a public announcement by the new Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, of politically-motivated investigations, including one into President Trump’s domestic political opponent.  In pressuring President Zelensky to carry out his demand, President Trump withheld a White House meeting desperately sought by the Ukrainian President, and critical U.S. military assistance to fight Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine. 

As my friend, Michael Gerhardt of UNC Law School, said (roughly), if Trump’s conduct is not impeachable, nothing is.   His written statement is here.   Key comments from the other testifying law professors are here.    On Friday a group of more than 500 law professors issued an open letter supporting impeachment. 


And the key facts really aren’t in dispute.  But Republican legislators are, at least publicly, united in support of doing nothing.  Trying to fathom what may be in their heads, I’ve considered various motives, but the most persuasive to me is fear.  Cory Booker mentioned this in a podcast interview with David Remnick a few weeks back.  Asked to explain why his Senate colleagues didn’t speak out, he said they were afraid.

I think what Booker meant was that they feared that their careers would be destroyed by Trump forces if they departed from Trumpism.  But there may be a related and deeper fear:  being separated from the tribe.  

For social animals, including humans, the need to be part of the tribe, herd, or flock is fundamental.  The individual cannot survive except as part of the group. Members of the tribe will tolerate bad leadership, as long as it’s not as bad as the highly risky alternative of isolation.

Of course, people do sometimes leave their tribes, and tribes splinter and re-form.  The really interesting question is how bad does it have to get?  In particular, what would the Trumpians have to do to exceed ordinary Republicans’ boundaries of tolerance?   I would have thought that subverting U.S. foreign policy for personal gain would qualify. But then again, I used to think that obvious fraud (like Trump University and the Trump charity), encouraging racist violence, bragging about sexual assault, and separating immigrant children from parents each would each be more than enough.  And that’s before we get to the attacks on the free press, undermining our traditional alliances like NATO, supporting recognized enemies like Russia, and threatening nuclear annihilation.  The list goes on.  

So it’s really hard to say.  But I’m trying to keep in mind that, even if we go over the constitutional cliff, it’s not because the Trumpian legislators are evil.  They’re just humans. And they might be persuaded to change course. That means it’s worth continuing the conversation.  

An open letter to my Republican friend about Donald Trump

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My dear Republican friend,

As we both know, we often do not agree on political matters. This is no big deal, since we connect in other ways that are important. We have an unspoken understanding that we usually don’t talk about politics, so as not to stress our friendship. And so it is with some hesitation that I now ask you, with all respect, to please not vote for Donald Trump.

First, a point we can surely agree on: Trump is no ordinary politician. He is unfiltered. He says whatever he wants to say. He’s got a definite point of view. And he’s right about a few things, which of course just means I occasionally agree with him. He’s wrong, in my view, on a lot of things, but that’s not why I believe you should oppose him. You should oppose him because he’s a person completely lacking in every quality that could make a human worthy of trust or respect.
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If you haven’t seen it yet, please read Jane Mayer’s New Yorker piece, Trump’s Boswell Speaks. It’s about Tony Schwartz, who ghost wrote The Art of the Deal. The book presented an idealized version of Trump as a brilliant dealmaker. Asked what he would title a book about Trump today, Schwartz said, “The Sociopath.” Over 18 months of working with Trump, Schwartz discovered a man who has no apparent interests other than himself – what excites him, what stuff he has, how much attention he can get. He apparently has never read an entire book.

Observing such a deficit of normal human curiosity and engagement, we can almost feel sorry for Trump. Almost, but not quite. His arrogance, his braggadocio, his hair-trigger temper, and his crudeness are legend. Even those we might forgive, if he had at least some capacity for caring. But Trump’s only interest in other humans is as objects to be exploited.
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You should read a fascinating piece on the extraordinary number of lawsuits against Trump by people who made the mistake of trusting him. As shown by hundreds of court cases, Trump refused to pay what he’d promised for people who worked for him as plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and on and on. He seems to find it fun to take small business people to court and ruin them, even when his lawyers cost him more than just paying what he agreed. I can tell you, as a person who spent many years as a commercial litigator, that most people do not find litigation fun. This is not the behavior of a normal person.

An important part of Trump’s career has been as a snake oil salesman. You’ve probably read about Trump University, where he was in the business of defrauding people and taking their money in exchange for empty promises. There’s a good account here. He tried to franchise this concept with Trump Institute, described here. Check out this NY Times piece on how, for Trump, lying is not so much a shameful little secret as an addictive lifestyle.
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He lies compulsively, outlandishly, non-stop, seemingly just for the thrill. Indeed, his central narrative – that he is an amazingly successful businessman, a master of the deal – is a huge lie. Check out these accounts of the spectacular failure of his attempt to make money in the casino business from the NY Times and this one from Newsweek.

Trump’s real talent is misleading, manipulating, and exploiting people. But, you say, isn’t that what all politicians do? A fair point, if a bit harsh, but Trump is off the charts. He presses people’s buttons in a way that causes them not only to stop thinking straight, but to start thinking badly. He inflames crowds and brings out latent strains of racism and misogyny. His followers, otherwise normal people, get his permission and encouragement to say and do ugly things. Have a look at this little video and see if you disagree.

So why might a thoughtful, well-informed person who cares about the future of this country and the world vote for him for president of the United States? I can think of only one reason that I can kind of understand – loyalty to the Republican party. Though not a Republican, I understand that political affiliations are deep-rooted, and I respect loyalty. But I’d point out that Trump has not been a Republican for much of his life, and many of his positions are at odds with Republican orthodoxy. Quite a few leading Republicans have already publicly declared their refusal to support him. There will be more.

I hope you will join them. Although I feel confident that Trump will be defeated in November, I think it is important that that defeat be crushing, and leave no doubt that the hate and violence that are central to his appeal have no place in mainstream American political life. Whatever you decide, thanks for considering these ideas, and for the good times we’ve shared and will share.

Your friend always,
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Fireworks, new bluebirds, right-wing NC Republicans, and bees at work

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Sally fixed chilled cucumber soup and two salads for our July 4th dinner, with homemade coffee ice cream for dessert. From our condo on the twelfth floor we had a good view of the fireworks show at Red Hat Amphitheater. Fireworks shows vary, but I’ve never seen one I really didn’t like, and this was no exception. OK, it could have been faster and bigger, but there were interesting shapes and sparkling colors, and lots of noise. This may be my favorite ritual in the American civil religion.
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Earlier that day, Sally took me along when she monitored the bluebird houses at Lochmere Golf Club. She’d promised that there should be some new eggs and nestlings, and there were! We were pleased to see the new arrivals.
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Speaking of country clubs, the News & Observer reported this week that Carolina Country Club, Raleigh’s old line club, finally admitted its first black member. This was front page news, and I was glad to hear it. CCC maintained the color barrier for way too long. Now that the curse has been broken, I hope they will implement a policy of true non-discrimination going forward.

In my lifetime, we’ve made so much progress on the race issue, for which I am happy and grateful. For all my disappointments with President Obama, every day I feel proud and a little amazed that we have a black president. I can go for weeks or months without observing anything like the racial prejudice that was pervasive when I was a boy.

But we’re still not done. Republican measures to limit the voting power of blacks in NC and elsewhere by imposing ID requirements are moving forward. This is just shameful. With this movement in process, the Supreme Court was surely wrong in striking down part of the Voting Rights Act. There’s still a ways to go to build a color-blind society.
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Our North Carolina Republican legislators have gone on a right-wing tear this session. Some of their activities make sense from the point of view of bettering the lot of the wealthy or pandering to the ignorant, but some are inexplicable in ordinary moral or practical terms.

Does any rational person, no matter how selfish or cynical, think it makes sense to get more people carrying concealed firearms into more public spaces? Would a person with a shred of decency change the law to protect agriculture operations that abuse farm animals and criminalize the behavior of those who seek to expose the abuse? Would a normal caring parent or employer find it sane to reduce school funding and increase class size? Would any responsible leader or citizen turn down federal funds meant to help the unemployed or ailing? Does any moderately educated person school think that North Carolina has the right to establish its own state religion? In establishing the highest priorities, does anyone think Is outlawing Sharia law makes the top-thousand list?

And while we’re outlawing Sharia law, why not work in a slew of anti-abortion measures? This actually happened this week without fanfare and without the usual legislative formalities, presumably to minimize the chance of organized opposition. I’ve never found the abortion issue as easy as some of my friends, but the state Senate’s work this week under cover of darkness is really disturbing from a process point of view, and looks like a huge mistake. In the aftermath of this latest fiasco, my liberal friends were looking glum, and worrying at the damage this is doing both to the humans affected (such as women with unwanted pregnancies and poor people) and to the image of our state.
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This onslaught really doesn’t seem like the result of a theory of government. To the extent it has a direction, it seems aimed less at accomplishing any policy objective than at making liberals screaming mad. Once a liberal value gets identified, it is attacked with extreme prejudice.

To a certain extent, the NC right-wingers seem to be reproducing the values battles identified by national-level right-wingers. What else could be going on? I heard an NPR interview with Bill McKibben, an environmentalist and college professor, who said the problem with building a green movement was that a movement needed an enemy. In a sense, all of us are conflicted on environmental issues, since we all like cars and electricity. We can’t be our own enemy and still feel motivated to get into the streets. His solution was to declare the oil companies the enemy. This would, he thought, allow a green movement to cohere.
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So maybe that’s what our NC right-wingers are up to: building their group cohesion by identifying liberals as the enemy and trying to cut out their hearts (metaphorically speaking). It’s hard for a liberal to find a silver lining at the moment, but I’ll still take a swing. I don’t think this is the direction a majority of the state, or even a majority of Republicans, want to go. And by forcing minorities, low-income people, women, immigrants, and the reality-based community to see their common interest, the wing-nut legislators are increasing the chances that their “public service” will not last past the next election.
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In the meantime, President Obama has seized the initiative on climate change by ordering rules on power plant reductions for CO2 and other measures. Longtime readers of the Casual Blog will know that this is a big issue for me that I think should be a big issue for everyone. At issue are mass extinctions and dislocations on a scale previously unknown in human history. The significance is much greater than putting a man on the moon, and we ought to mobilize with a level of commitment on a scale comparable to the Apollo project. I hope this is the start.
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And while we’re on the subject of things to feel good about and continue working on, let us not forget, the long fight for gay rights has made real progress. The Supreme Court, a highly conservative institution (even if not all of its justices are conservative), struck down the Defense of Marriage Act! A majority recognized this as a human rights issue. It seems the tide has turned.
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Well, that’s it, I’m climbing off my soap box. I got out to Raulston Arboretum on Saturday and found a lot of bees hard at work. I took along my tripod and used a Nikkor 18-55 mm lens in aperture priority mode. Along with a variety of bees and flowers, I was struck by the sculptural qualities of some of the blooms. My favorites are above and below.
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Great N.C. wreck diving, compassion for sea creatures, and collective intelligence

For Labor Day weekend, Sally and I went down to Wrightsville Beach, NC, for some wreck diving and extended our lucky streak of exceptional coastal dives. Our trip was organized by our friends at Down Under Surf and Scuba, and we went out on the Aquatic Safaris I. The 48-foot boat I carried 19 divers.

Saturday was warm and clear, with mild breezes and fairly calm seas. We dove the City of Houston, a passenger-freighter that foundered in a storm in 1878. She lies about 50 miles from Wrightsville. It took two and a half hours of hard traveling to get there. Shortly after we anchored and I visited the head, I felt queasy and promptly got sick. Then I felt mostly better, and we jumped in and headed down the anchor line to the wreck.

The Houston lies at about 95 feet down. Visibility was good (perhaps 60 feet) and the water temperature was a comfortable 82 degrees. There was a mild amount of current on the bottom. There were thousands of small fish. Our most dramatic sighting of the day was a goliath grouper, an enormous fellow, almost six feet long. My camera battery gave out when I tried to get a picture. I did, however, get some other pictures, including Sally examining something tiny with her magnifying glass (above) and great clouds of small fish.

After a second dive on the Houston, we headed in. Our seats were metal benches along the sides, in front of our tanks, so we couldn’t lean back and sleep. Some of our dive mates stretched out and slept on the deck, so it was difficult to move about as the boat sped along at a quick 25-knot pace. Diving sometimes takes fortitude.

We had a good Italian dinner with Sally’s sister in Wilmington at Nicola’s. There were a number of appealing vegetarian offerings. I had the eggplant rollatini with pink sauce, which was quite tasty. We had a lively conversation about, among other things, the automation of higher education, and how it is threatening the traditional university.

On Sunday we went out again on the Aquatic Safaris I, this time for a two-hour trip to the Normannia, a Danish freighter that foundered in 1924. The seas were calm and the trip went smoothly. I didn’t get sick. The wreck is about 115 feet deep. Like the previous day, the visibility was about 60 feet and the water was comfortable.

Even more than at the Houston, the Normannia had an amazing profusion of life. Along with thousands of small fish, we saw barracuda, a couple of gigantic lobsters, a well camouflaged frogfish, and my favorite, queen angelfish (several). I went to some trouble trying to get a good picture of one, and though these don’t really do it justice, they were the best I could do.

It is such a great pleasure to swim among fish. At times we were completely surrounded by thousands of small ones, and at times we swam alongside large ones. As I dive more, I feel increasingly touched by their beauty. They are amazingly varied in size, shape, color, and ways of moving about. Recent research indicates that they are much smarter than we’ve thought. For example, some can very quickly learn complex topography of a reef environment.

As I’ve spent more time with these creatures, I’ve come to consider them sentient beings worthy of respect and compassion. I regret to say I’m in a minority on this point. Among my fellow divers were some with spear guns and one who was capturing lobsters. I found it really painful to see him take an enormous lobster, perhaps decades old, and break off its antenna and shove it into an ice chest to suffocate.

My shipmate seemed otherwise a decent and friendly fellow. I’m certain he was not trying to torture the creature, though that was what he did. He didn’t derive pleasure from being cruel. He simply couldn’t comprehend that the animal was capable of suffering. I think he and others would find that expanding the circle of compassion to more animals is a happier and more fulfilling way to live.

Speaking of intelligence, I read recently that the human brain was unlikely to get larger in the normal course of future evolution, because it would serve no purpose. Brains working in isolation are not how things get done. Instead, as E.O. Wilson has pointed out, it’s humans’ ability to connect their individual brains that has been the secret to their evolutionary success. We keep getting better at that, developing over the millenia the tools of gesture, spoken language, and written language, with the internet being the latest game-changing technology.

In the midst of the depressing mendacity and nonsense of the Republican convention, I find it somewhat consoling to look at intelligence as potentially expanding through better networks. The Republicans are profoundly mistaken in thinking that entrepreneurs act primarily as fully independent rugged individualists. It’s more accurate, and also more useful, to look at achievement in terms of groups cooperating and competing. Our future success, and perhaps our survival, depends on our ability to improve our systems of cooperation, including our politics.

Republicans and science

Last week Paul Krugman departed from his usual subject matter (the economy) to present the case that Republicans are becoming the anti-science party. His argument included a quote from a Republican official accusing a conspiracy of scientists of fabricating global warming data to promote their own careers.

It would be nice if such lunacy could be dismissed as a fringe phenomenon. But the speaker was the current governor of Texas and a leading candidate for President. And according to Krugman only 21% of Iowa Republican voters believe in global warming, and only 35% of them believe in evolution. Holy Toledo!

Is it possible that we could elect as President a person who opposes factual analysis and critical thought generally? As unbelievable as it sounds, the answer, apparently, is yes. At any rate, none of the current Republican candidates is prepared to stand up for rational thought over patent nonsense when their potential supporters prefer the nonsense.

I’ve never considered it particularly heroic to acknowledge factual reality or base action on the best available data. I thought this was what people ordinarily did. There have always been people who were disconnected from reality, but traditionally we either feared or pitied them. No sane person would consider taking their views seriously. So how is it possible that the anti-science Republicans (surely, or at least I hope, still a minority among Republicans) have developed into a political force? This is crazy!

Now, I have nothing against people who prefer their fantasies to hard reality. It’s OK if they want to believe, for example, that it’s possible to have public services without paying taxes, or that climate change is nothing to worry about. But it would be folly to let such people have serious responsibility for anything. Just as we don’t let young children drive cars, we don’t want the anti-science people making important decisions. As opponents of science, they just don’t have the tools necessary for good decision-making. Why would we even consider trusting them?

Birther psychology, lacrosse, and another call to end the war on drugs

Some of the nicest people I know are Republicans, so I say this with all due respect: how is it that 45% of Republicans are birthers? That’s a lot of Republicans! As the NY Times noted this week, not for the first time, there’s overwhelming evidence that the President is a natural born citizen, and so a birther is almost by definition someone resistant to considering evidence and applying reason. The Times got opinions from various academics and pundits about this odd phenomenon, and one by David Redlawske struck me as particularly thoughtful. He observed that feelings often trump facts:

We are all somewhat impervious to new information, preferring the beliefs in which we are already invested. We often ignore new contradictory information, actively argue against it or discount its source, all in an effort to maintain existing evaluations. Reasoning away contradictions this way is psychologically easier than revising our feelings. In this sense, our emotions color how we perceive “facts.”

This isn’t groundbreaking, of course, but it’s easy to forget how fragile and subject to failure rationality is, and how hard it is for the reason to overcome prejudice. Major political issues can get invented, distorted, or ignored based on likes and dislikes, without regard to evidence or analysis. We all do this to some extent, but some more than others. And our dysfunctional political process is a result of this resistance to evidence and reason.

Friday night Sally, Diane (Sally’s Mom), and I went over to Durham to see some lacrosse — Duke and Virginia in the ACC championship semifinals. Diane has developed an unlikely passion for lacrosse, and with her encouragement we’ve been to a couple of games this season. It’s a great sport, with some of the speed and fury of hockey and the strategy and finesse of soccer. The evening was cool and drizzly, and we were damp and shivering by the end. The Dukies had their way with the UVa, 19-10.

On the way back, I asked Diane about her views on the war on drugs. She wasn’t familiar with the term. Diane reads the NY Times every day and is extremely well-informed on current events, so her lack of knowledge on this subject worried me. I suspect that a lot of bright people filter out news on the drug issue, because the news is confusing and frequently painful. The drug war is costing billions of dollars, exhausting the capacities of our courts and prisons, destroying lives, financing organized crime, and destabilizing entire countries (Mexico, Afghanistan, Honduras, Nicuragua, El Salvador etc.).

But some good news: there are more and more people ready to talk about our failed drug policy and what to do about it. According to a reliable sounding blog in the Huffington Post (how’s that for sourcing?), the Obama administration invited questions for various “town meetings,” and the most frequently raised topic was drug legalization. Unfortunately the President avoided the issue. But the political tide is moving, and may be turning.

So what’s the problem? Almost everyone knows that many people like mood and perception altering substances. That was true of our remote ancestors, and it’s true of us. But too much media coverage of the drug issue is alarmist fear mongering, which creates fearful beliefs that make it difficult to proceed with reasoned discourse. Thus we’ve had the rise and fall of the crack epidemic — a drug originally reported to be so addictive that no one could use it responsibly and so powerful that it was going to destroy our cities. This was plainly a huge exaggeration. Before that were such stories as the tendency of LSD to induce psychosis (huge exaggeration), and of pot to cause bizarre criminal behavior (Reefer Madness) (a complete fabrication). The fact in plain view that was ignored, and is still ignored: most people that use illegal recreational drugs are functioning just fine.

I say this not to encourage illegal drug use. It’s been many moons since I myself used an illegal drug. I avoid them because I think they’re too risky, both in terms of criminal liability and otherwise. Some people (you? me?) are prone to addiction, which is a serious health problem with multiple dimensions. Also, there is no particular reason to trust an unknown unregulated chemist, and no reason to be confident that his chemical product will not cause either immediate or long-term physical harm. There are plainly many degrees of risk, and individual preferences for risk taking vary. Some people like to jump out of airplanes, and some people like to try new designer drugs. Others, like me, are uncomfortable with such levels of risk.

But as a matter of ethics, there’s just no distinction between most of the intoxicating substances that we’ve legalized and those that we put people in jail for. Alcoholic beverages for most people are pleasant diversions, and for an unfortunate minority they are career-destroying, family-destroying, health-destroying addictions. The same is true of cocaine, and the same is true of recreational use of legal pharmaceuticals. The Times reported this week that Oxycontin abuse is widespread in Ohio, and resulting in addiction and deadly overdoses. These health problems should be recognized and addressed, but not exaggerated. We need to confront fears and assumptions with evidence, and figure out how to make an orderly withdrawal from the war on drugs.