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American Politics According to Kevin

Before I begin, I must make a confession:  I rarely follow day-to-day American politics.  Not only do I find most of the developments tediously predictable, but the vast majority of the commentary–whether from the media or by individuals on social media–is so ignorant that I can barely read it.  That being said, I am aware that there is an election coming up.  In anticipation of that event, and particularly for those who live abroad or are newcomers to our country, I thought I might lay out some basic notes on the American political landscape as I understand it.

Conservatives vs Liberals

With certain rare (and ultimately unimportant) exceptions the US only ever has two main political factions.  While the names change, and are occasionally traded, they aren’t really important.  It is better to think of them as a Conservative faction and a Liberal faction.  Most Americans have no idea what the two factions stand for, yet are quick to label themselves as one or the other.  Many people are under the impression that these labels have something to do with fiscal policy, that Conservatives prefer to pay smaller taxes and receive less from the government, whereas liberals are willing to pay more in return for more.  In reality, there are very few true fiscal Conservatives left in the US.  The population, despite denying it loudly, is overwhelmingly in favor of big government.  Regardless of which faction or sub-faction they belong to, however, they all feel that they should pay smaller taxes and members of other factions should pay more.

The real issue is change (in any form).  Conservatives favor actions which will prevent change.  Liberals favor actions to accelerate change.  Unfortunately, the assumption that a political party can control change is completely unfounded.  All of the evidence of history is that change happens on its own, regardless of human interference.  The only real choices are whether to ignore it or embrace it.

The climate is changing, and always has been since the Earth was formed.  It is irrelevant whether these changes are man-made (although the overwhelming scientific evidence points this way).  The only choice is whether to ignore climate change or to make other changes to adapt.

Culture is changing.  Conservatives would rather believe that there is a static American culture and that any deviations from this norm are aberrations which need to be corrected.  History shows us, however, that a culture only stops changing when it is dead.  Liberals would rather engage in social engineering to change culture to their own specifications.  Unfortunately, culture is an incredibly complicated phenomenon.  Every historical attempt to change it to order has resulted in unintended and usually horrible consequences and has eventually backfired.  I draw your attention to the French Revolution, the Third Reich, or the efforts of the Russian Soviet in the 1930’s.  The problem is complicated further by the fact that the US, since its colonization, has consisted of not a single culture but a mesh of affiliated subcultures.

Technology is changing, and the pace of technological change has been accelerating exponentially since at least the eighteenth century.  Conservatives would like to use new technology without it changing any other factor of the society.  Liberals would like to use technology to change the society itself.  Neither seems adequately aware of the two-way influence between technology and culture or between technology and the economy.

Finally, the economy is changing.  The form of the economy is dictated by technology and demographics (neither of which can be controlled) and (to a far lesser extent) by government policy.  There are very few true economic liberals.  Both Conservatives and “Liberals” in this country seem to expect the economy itself to remain static while they focus on issues of wealth distribution, ignoring the fact that the economy itself changes over time.

Social Class

Social class exists in the US just as much as in any other country, even though it has long been fashionable to ignore it.  For nearly two centuries the primary determinant of social class has been money.  However, many other factors, more or less correlated with money, also play a role.  For instance more recent immigrants are generally considered socially inferior to earlier immigrants (although Native Americans have traditionally been near the very bottom).  Lighter skinned people typically have higher social status than darker skinned people.  Those who speak English as a first language are considered superior to those who speak Spanish, or other languages.  The result is a complicated formula that leaves most Americans continually wondering and worrying about where they fall in the social pecking order.  This is further complicated by an enduring myth that everyone in America is a member of the middle class, or at least would be if they worked at it (often referred to as the “American Dream”).  This idea is patently nonsense, and originated in government propaganda from the New Deal years.

It is a fact that, due to technological and economic factors, the middle class, as a percentage of the population, grew to unprecedented size during the twentieth century.  History shows, however, that the middle class generally constitutes only a small fraction of most societies.  At present the middle class is again shrinking, which is a source of great angst to most middle class Americans.  Most political rhetoric (from both factions) consists of pandering to the middle class and false promises to reverse this trend.

Wealth Distribution

Americans as a whole are fairly wealthy, by world standards.  However, an ever increasing amount of that wealth is concentrated at the top.  Leaving aside questions of fairness (one of the slipperiest of all philosophical concepts) this is a very dangerous situation.  Wealth concentration beyond a certain level always leads to social unrest and eventually to revolution.  It paves the way for a totalitarian dictator to seize power, slaughter most of the wealthy citizens, and give (some of) the wealth back to the people.  Such dictatorships rarely last more than a generation, but that is beside the point.  It is a matter of self preservation for the wealthy to find ways to redistribute much of their assets, either through philanthropy, higher wages for their employees, or higher taxation at the upper levels.  If they fail to do so the best we can hope for is a Solon, Caesar, or Mussolini.  Analysis of history implies that we are more likely to end up with a Pol Pot, a Robespierre, or a Hitler.

Geopolitics

The range of options open to world leaders tends to be dictated by factors beyond their control and is much more limited than their citizens believe.  However, dependence on fossil fuels to prop up the middle class and maintain the status quo collapses these options to one.  Until America gets her domestic affairs in order, she can’t live without oil and will continue to anything she must to get it.  And yes, cars are primarily a middle class status symbol.

My Own Platform

As a philosopher, I am an observer and commentator, not a participant in my country’s politics.  As Socrates said, “Do you really imagine that I could have survived all these years, if I had led a public life?”

However, I personally lean towards the Liberal side, in that I accept change and favor adapting to it as it comes.  I believe that we need to actively address the issues of social class and wealth distribution while accommodating changes in technology, economics, and culture as they arise.  I think that small government is a beautiful ideal which is totally impractical in the 21st century, so we should try to build the most efficient and responsive big government we can.

In terms of social class, I feel that we should establish a formal class system that is divorced as much as possible from income or assets.  My preference would be to support a large proletariat, a small middle class, and a smaller aristocracy.

A welfare class is unavoidable, since we literally do not have enough work for our excess population.  However, we need to make realistic policies to reduce the size of this class over time.  One solution is large scale public works programs (preferably funded from the assets of the wealthy) to give jobs to members of the welfare class, thus converting them into proletarians.  A program of voluntary sterilization in return for eligibility for certain welfare benefits might also be useful.

I also believe that we need to recognize a separate class consisting of intellectuals and professional artists, the members of which would be drawn from all classes.  People of demonstrated ability in these areas should be supported by the state so they can live roughly as well as the proletariat, but they should be forbidden to file for copyright protection or to make money from their work, which would be made available to all Americans (e.g. in government sponsored exhibitions or by distributing it via the Internet).

Most importantly, we must create well defined processes for upward and downward mobility between all of the classes.  Everyone should be able to find their own level, based on natural aptitude.  No one should ever be in doubt about which class they belong to at a given moment.

As far as wealth distribution goes, I think it is imperative to periodically remove assets from the aristocracy and middle class and distribute them to the remaining three classes.  The obvious tool for this is aggressively progressive taxation.  The idea I mentioned above, of requiring the richest individuals to fund large public works projects out of pocket, worked well for Imperial Rome and may also have merit for the US.  The middle class is shrinking on its own.  I would, however, suggest discontinuing any government programs that exist mainly to prop them up including–but not limited to–tax breaks for home owners and subsidies of the automotive industry.

I fully realize that none of my recommendations are likely to come to pass any time soon.  To paraphrase Plato’s Socrates again, “Until philosophers are kings or kings are philosophers, good luck making it happen.”.  Still, I felt I would have been remiss to write an essay of this type without mentioning my own opinions.

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Book Review: The Vintage Mencken

Cover image of The Vintage Mencken

My partner and I just returned from a rather lovely holiday up the Oregon coast. While I was gone, this website was migrated from the WordPress.com server to a self hosted server. If you are a subscriber, the transition should have been nearly seamless. My first day and half back was spent fixing bad links and tweaking my setup (I’m a writer, not a web master, so I’m slow at that sort thing). It seems like I have things in order now, but if you run into any missing pages or bad links, please let me know in the comments or by sending a quick email to longhunt at yahoo dot com.

During the part of my holiday when I wasn’t birdwatching or eating sea food, I had time to get some reading in. One of the books that I finished was The Vintage Mencken, which is a collection of essays from H.L. Mencken’s newspaper columns and books. Mencken (1880-1956) was a prolific journalist and author throughout the first half of the 20th century. He is particularly known for deflating the literary and political figures of his day with stiletto-like wit and criticism. In his later career he also translated Nietzsche and wrote books on philology. Many of his works are now available either from Project Gutenberg or in various online archives. For those who have never read him, however, The Vintage Mencken, edited by Alistair Cooke, is an excellent sampling of the best pieces over his entire writing career.

Mencken came up in the golden age of newspaper journalism, when print was nearly the only form of mass media. In his later writings he evidences a distaste for radio and motion pictures, which he obviously felt were hopelessly low-brow. Had he lived a century later, however (which would, coincidentally have made him about my age) he would surely have been a blogger. His mature style would have been perfect for it–compact, yet thoughtful, incisive, and relentlessly snarky. I think that any modern blogger could learn a great deal from reading his columns and essays. While doing so, however, it is hard not to be struck by how many issues have changed little in a century: education is still going down hill, Americans are still boorish when it comes to culture, letters, and foreign policy, and politicians are still far too influenced by money and lobbying groups. As bloggers in the 21st century we tend to assume that we are breaking new ground and that the issues we confront are new an unique. It does us well to remember that, while the names and media have changed, the nature of our work really hasn’t.

H.L. Mencken, Oliver Richard Reid [public domain via Wikimedia]

H.L. Mencken, Oliver Richard Reid [public domain via Wikimedia]

Nothing and no one were safe from Mencken’s iconoclasty. His favorite targets were populism, plutocracy, modern art, religious fundamentalism, and especially the bourgeoisie. Mencken himself came from a comfortable upper-middle-class background, he decided early to pursue the unpredictable life of a writer. While he never hesitated to poke fun at artists, there is no question that he considered himself one of their number. Like most of us who reject the comfort and stability of our bourgeois roots, he had little or no respect for the middle class. His true admiration was for an aristocracy that did not exist in the United States. He repeatedly warns against confusing plutocrats with true aristocrats,

…[P]lutocracy, in a democratic state, tends inevitably, despite its theoretical infamy, to take the place of the missing aristocracy, and even be mistaken for it.  It is, of course, something quite different.

Bourgeoisie of “the country club and interior decorator stage of culture”  have no understanding of art, fear new ideas, and are hopelessly conformist. True aristocrats, on the other hand, protect culture and tradition, yet are willing to accept eccentricity. Most importantly of all, according to Mencken, the bourgeoisie are cowardly. Personal courage is the highest virtue to an aristocrat but the middle class idolizes stability and security,

The one permanent emotion of inferior man, as of all the simpler mammals, is fear–fear of the unknown, the complex, the inexplicable.  What he wants beyond anything else is safety.  His instincts incline him toward a society so organized that it will protect him from all hazards, and not only against perils to his hide but also against assaults upon his mind–against the need to grapple with unaccustomed problems, to weigh ideas, to think things out for himself, to scrutinize the platitudes upon which his everyday thinking is based. (p. 105)

Me may or may not agree with Mencken’s views. Those of you who have been reading my blog know that I tend to agree with him. Even if you don’t buy into his platform, this book is a delightful view into the events and idiosyncrasies if early twentieth century life, and an excellent all-around example of expository writing.

Book Review: At The End of An Age

Lukacs, At The End of An Age, cover picture

At the End of an Age is a small book, and John Lukacs’ elegant yet simple prose could easily lull you into thinking it is an easy read.  It doesn’t take many pages, though, to realize that every paragraph in this book (or rather, book-length essay) is laden with complex ideas and meaning.  I found myself rereading whole pages to make sure I understood, and I suspect that I would need to read the whole book two or three times to pick up on all of his points.  That being said, the book is worth it.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the ostensible thesis of the book is that the modern age, which Lukacs calls the “bourgeoisie age” is nearing its end.  He offers cogent arguments and examples in support and, in general, makes a strong case.  As it happens, I agree with him; I wrote something very similar on this blog a couple weeks ago, before I had ever read Lukacs.  I think that anyone with some level of historical awareness can see that our civilization is gearing up for a drastic change.  Other historians I have read would have spent the entire book (or 12, in the case of Toynbee) expanding on their particular theory.  Lukacs, having laid out his arguments, then moves up to a higher, more meta-historical level.  Lukacs is interested not just in how history works, but in the epistemology and metaphysics of history and its relationship to the other sciences.  These are deep waters indeed.  Only Lukac’s strong voice and skill as a writer keep the reader from sinking.  Since I lack his mastery, I will not attempt to explain his points here, but will merely mention a couple of his main themes.

Lukacs believes that in history, as in quantum physics, the phenomena is ultimately inseparable from the observer.  The historian does not just record history but, in the act of writing it, actually influences and creates it.  This means that true objectivity is impossible for the historian, and that a purely deterministic conception of history is as obsolete as deterministic physics was after Heisenberg.  This matches up with comments I have occasionally made about history as a narrative.  History is based on fact but, ultimately, is a literary discipline.  This historian doesn’t just tell the story, he creates it.

Another major theme in the book is the role of the human mind in creating history.  Lukacs asserts that “the inclinations of men’s minds” and their beliefs are more important than their competence or any material factor.  “Mind” in this sense means consciousness or soul, separate from brain and body.  Lukacs believes in the power of the mind to influence reality and manifest different potentialities.  Comparative metaphysics is far from my specialty.  However, this sounds very similar to the writings of various New Thought philosophers,  particularly Earnest Holmes and his Science of Mind disciples.  I wonder to what extent the young John Lukacs was influenced by these metaphysical systems.  Regardless, the take away is that if a historian wants to understand a person or group he needs to go beyond studying their situation and strive to understand their minds.

Overall, I found many ideas in this book which I could agree with, or at least try on for size.  There were a few arguments, however, with which I did take minor issue.  In an early section of the book, as part of an overview of various ways the social structures of the current age are breaking down, he discusses the trend towards women’s equality in the workplace and announces that,

Women thought (or, rather, convinced themselves) that they were reacting against the age-old and often senseless categories and assertions  of male authority; yet their dissatisfaction often arose not because of the oppressive strength but because of the weakness of males.  The rising tide of divorces and abortions, the acceptance of sexual liberties, including pre-marital (and sometimes post-marital) habits of frequent copulation and other forms of cohabitation, the increasing numbers of unmarried women and single mothers, the dropping birth rate–thus the decline of the so-called “nuclear” family–were, especially after 1955, grave symptoms suggesting vast social changes.  They included the perhaps seldom wholly conscious, but more and more evident, tendency of many young women to desire any kind of male companionship, even of a strong and brutal kind, if need be at the cost of their self-respect. (pp. 23-24)

He offers no support for this complex, arguable, and potentially inflammatory claim.  This is not the sort of paragraph you just casually slip into a book without offering evidence to back it up.  This is the sort of thing which would have caused me, when I was still a teaching assistant grading papers, to circle the whole paragraph with red pen and write “BURDEN OF PROOF” in the margin.

Lukacs is also universally deprecatory of post-modernism in all of its forms, seeing it as a basically vague and degenerate direction for scholarship and culture.  That is a legitimate, if somewhat reactionary stance.  However, Lukacs, who escaped communist Hungary as a young man, is also blatantly anti-Marxist.  Since, as a historian, Lukacs could not help but be aware of the many contributions that Marxism has made to post-modern analysis and art, I have to question whether he might not be biased on the whole subject of post-modernism.

Finally, Lukacs is dismissive of any value in mathematics for the study of history.  As a “quant”, I feel compelled to respond.  As evidence, he cites his own non-deterministic, non-objectivist view of history as well as Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, which say that 1) Any non-trivial mathematical system contains some postulates which can not be proven without going beyond the system.  2) No mathematical system is capable of proving its own consistency.  Personally, I have been fascinated by Gödel’s theorems since I first studied them in an Abstract Algebra class that I took as a college junior.   As an illustration of what they mean, consider Euclid’s geometrical system, as set down in the Elements.  Euclid begins “A point is that which has position but no dimension.”  The entire system doesn’t work without this axiom, yet there is no way to prove that a point has no dimension using only Euclidean geometry.  You would need to introduce propositions from topology and/or calculus–which are themselves systems which contain propositions which can not be proven without introducing even more complex systems of mathematics.

Kurt Gödel in 1925 [public domain via Wikimedia]

Kurt Gödel in 1925 [public domain via Wikimedia]

And yet, geometry works quite well enough for most purposes, as do topology and calculus.  Granted, the incompleteness theorems seem to imply that a grand-unified theory of history, in the sense of of a closed form solution (plug all the variables into the equation, predict what will happen next) is impossible.  But applied math and statistics are about approximations, empirical formulas, noisy data, and models that work “well enough”, with a quantifiable margin of error.  The incredible advances over the past fifty years in fields like data mining, complexity theory, machine learning, and signal processing have paved the way for a useful discipline of mathematical history, probably within our own lifetimes.  Such a system will only be one more tool for the historian to use, and the results must not be allowed to dominate the historical narrative itself.  But to dismiss all mathematical history out of hand because it will not be an internally provable system seems like a major error.  Even in a non-deterministic universe, mathematical modeling can still provide startling and useful insights.

Despite these minor qualms, I truly enjoyed this book and would recommend it.  Overall, in fact, it is the kind of book I would like to write myself some day.  I will absolutely be reading (and probably reviewing) more of Lukacs’ works in the future.