My thoughts on the Trump-Putin Helsinki summit

I’m grateful for the freedom to criticize my president’s words in praise of Vladimir Putin at the Helsinki Summit. It’s a freedom that Russia’s citizens do not equally enjoy.

I don’t fault a US president for meeting with authoritarian leaders. But I do fault them when they do so to praise them and imply that they’re envious of their unchecked power.

Call me old fashioned, but I think that liberal democracy is a better form of government than authoritarianism and worth defending and fighting for, both at home and abroad.

I used to think that despite our partisan differences, we all agreed on basic fundamentals like democracy > authoritarianism. I don’t think a candid read of the evidence can support that view any longer.

Our president clearly and openly minimizes the importance of democratic institutions and norms while praising strongman dictators. One party mostly gives him a pass, and the other says we need to focus on economic issues over presidential scandals/drama.

As a Millennial, I didn’t grow up with the cultural memory of WW2, the Cold War, or the Berlin Wall. I took liberal democracy as a given and for granted in my country. I suppose every generation has to learn anew why democracy, despite its flaws, is worth defending.

Highlights from “The War on Alcohol” by Lisa McGirr

I recently finished a fascinating overview of the politics of Prohibition in the early 20th century entitled The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State, written by Harvard’s Prof. Lisa McGirr. Some of the book’s highlights include:

  • Part of the motivation for Prohibition was of course to improve American health and well-being. This was a peripheral concern, however, compared to the more central motivation of enacting policy which would make it more difficult for lower-income racial/ethnic minority groups to organize politically. Many of the political debates of the early 20th century pitted, on one side, working-class immigrant/Catholic/Irish/German/Italians against upscale Protestants and business entrepreneurs. Prohibition was understood to be a policy designed primarily to make it more difficult for urban Catholic immigrants (who often voted for the Democratic political machines in big cities) to organize politically, as the neighborhood saloon was a key political setting in many urban contexts.
  • This was all the more evident given that government enforcement of Prohibition was directed disproportionately at poorer regions and working class neighborhoods. In many cities, wealthy, upscale citizens could enjoy drinks at the local speakeasy assured that the police would leave them alone. Lower-class consumers and rural bootleggers, however, never enjoyed such assurances.
  • Further, Prohibition had no stronger support than among the Ku Klux Klan. “The dry mission intersected perfectly with its anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and white-supremacist agenda” (135). During this era, to support Prohibition was to put oneself on the side of “respectable” morality and upstanding American values, which was understood to be under assault from un-American (often Catholic) radicalism.
  • The hatred of Prohibition among working-class ethnic neighborhoods and immigrant communities was a key issue that swung many of them to the Democratic Party in the early 1930s. It is not a stretch to say that Prohibition was a key factor (in addition to the Depression) in the electoral realignment of the 1932 election that led to FDR, the New Deal, and the Democratic Party’s ascendancy for the next several decades.
  • The effort to enforce Prohibition led to an unprecedented expansion of the federal state in the 1920s, as many resources were needed for enforcement and punishing violators. In the view of Prof. McGirr, this directly paved the path for the further expansion of the federal government in the 1930s under FDR. Further, it set the stage for a later expansion of the federal state during the 1970s-1990s with the War on Drugs.
  • One of Prof. McGirr’s central theses is that Prohibition was the War on Drugs of the 1920s. Much of the rhetoric and social anxieties were the same, especially when it came to how alcohol and drugs were perceived to be associated with lower-class and ethnic/racial crime. “Law and order” was a rallying cry of Prohibition just as it was for the War on Drugs in the later part of the 20th century.

From a personal perspective, it was interesting to learn how clearly Prohibition was linked to anti-immigrant, anti-radical, and anti-Catholic sentiment of the 1920s and 1930s. It was in this context that the LDS Church revised its suggested recommendation against alcohol to a much more rigid prohibition and linked teetotalism strongly to its own cultural identity. Given that the LDS Church in the early 20th century was making a deliberate effort to appear normal, mainstream, and “American” after the end of polygamy in the late 19th century, hitching its cultural identity to the Prohibition wagon was a natural, and in many ways, successful strategy.

My advice to Congressional Republicans: fight President Trump’s trade war

GOP Senator John Cornyn recently explained why most Congressional Republicans are reluctant to push back against President Trump’s aggressive economic tariffs:

The (understandable) logic is that Congressional Republicans who defy Trump on these tariffs risk facing his Twitter-wrath which may hurt their reelection chances and/or congressional majority in this November’s midterm election. As a result, they have chosen mostly to keep their heads down rather than to speak out in defense of free trade (with a few notable exceptions), something that has traditionally been a key conservative/Republican priority.

Congressional Republicans should keep in mind, however, that tariffs have historically hurt economic growth. Indeed, the World Bank has recently warned that Trump’s tariffs risk starting a trade war that could cause another global economic recession similar in magnitude to the 2008 recession.

This matters for a variety of reasons, but more to Senator Cornyn’s concern, there is a strong correlation between economic performance and midterm congressional outcomes. When the economy is weak, the president’s party suffers heavy losses. 

Thus, I would advise Republicans who are concerned about maintaining control of Congress in this fall’s midterm elections to do everything they can to oppose President Trump’s recent tariffs. Not only would this demonstrate that their party’s commitment to free-market economic principles is genuine, but it would also help improve their reelection chances this fall.

Further, if President’s Trump’s tariffs do indeed spark a global trade war and a subsequent global economic recession, it will be very, very, very difficult for President Trump to win reelection in 2020, as domestic economic growth during the election year is a key predictor of presidential and election outcomes.

In sum, I predict that congressional Republicans will do more to hurt their chances this November by going along with President Trump’s tariffs than they would by opposing them.

 

 

A qualification to David Deutsch’s argument about proportional representation

In The Beginning of Infinity, physicist David Deutsch channels Karl Popper to argue that the best way to make progress and advance the state of human knowledge is not to seek knowledge from the best oracles, but rather to figure out the best way to “detect and eliminate error” (209), recognizing that all oracles of knowledge are ultimately fallible.

Applying this principle to politics, Deutsch argues that majoritarian plurality electoral systems are preferable to proportional representation parliamentary systems. This is because proportional representation systems produce legislatures with a strong multi-party system in which no one party ever enjoys a majority. Thus, policies from proportional representation systems are inevitably the result of strong compromise, making it difficult for voters to know who to hold accountable when they produce bad policies.

Also, while we commonly think of compromise as a good thing, he argues that:

The key defect of compromise policies is that when one of them is implemented and fails, no one learns anything because no one ever agreed with it. (346)

Instead, he argues that the institutions of a political system should function to make it easy to detect and eliminate error. This is more likely to be the case in majoritarian plurality systems where it is easy to hold the majority accountable for their performance and easier to replace them if that performance is judged poorly.

Following a plurality-voting election, the usual outcome is that the party with the largest total number of votes has an overall majority in the legislature, and therefore takes sole charge. All the losing parties are removed entirely from power. This is rare under proportional representation, because some of the parties in the old coalition are usually needed in the new one. Consequently, the logic of plurality is that politicians and political parties have little chance of gaining any share in the power unless they can persuade a substantial proportion of the population to vote for them. (347)

While this is an interesting argument, in my view it is also somewhat incomplete because electoral systems do not exist in a vacuum. The ability to efficiently replace governments that promote bad policies is also highly dependent on whether the democratic political system has a presidential or parliamentary system.

In the United States, for instance, we have a presidential majoritarian plurality system. In order for policies to be enacted, they must be supported by a majority of the House, Senate, as well as the presidency. In instances of “unified government,” where all are controlled by the same political party, it is indeed easy for voters for determine who to remove if policies are not working: the majority party in power. Such conditions of unified government are rare, however. Much more common is for Congress to be controlled by one party and the presidency to be controlled by another. In these situations, they blame each other for bad policies, making it difficult for voters to know who to hold accountable for poor performance.

In contrast, parliamentary systems combine the executive and legislative powers into a single entity. When policies are bad, voters know who to hold accountable: the coalition government in power. They also know more easily who to replace at the next election. This often produces a system that is often more likely to be responsive to voters who are more easily able to hold the government accountable for bad policies, often incentivizing better outcomes on the part of elected officials.

In sum, judging whether or not proportional representation or majoritarian plurality systems do a better job of detecting and eliminating bad policies requires, in my view, additional knowledge of the context and institutions where those policies are created.

 

“The Beginning of Infinity”: David Deutsch on knowledge and human progress

 

I recently finished The Beginning of Infinity by physicist David Deutsch. Here are a sampling of ideas that I thought were noteworthy or compelling:

  • A key driver of human progress is the search for better explanations. “There is only one way of making progress: conjecture and criticism” (203).
  • “Scientific truth consists of correspondence between theories and physical reality” (39).
  • He rejects the idea that knowledge is bounded, either by the methods of finding knowledge or the capacity of the human brain. “Everything that is not forbidden by laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge.”
  • Consciousness and free will are emergent phenomena, but that doesn’t mean they are not real. 
  • “If you can’t program it, you haven’t understood it” (154).
  • Societies can either be static or dynamic (or something in between). Static societies are dominated by memes (ideas) that resist change. Dynamic societies promote memes that foster criticism and critical thinking. Of the two, dynamic societies progress and discover knowledge. In contrast, static societies by and large perpetuate human suffering, ignorance, and misery. 
  • The human species made progress because it became able to internalize and reproduce memes (similar to Yuval Harari’s “imagined stories” argument). Through most of human history, memes were static. But the Enlightenment shifted the scales toward dynamic memes and has resulted in the fastest period of progress and advancement of knowledge ever in our species.

It caused me to reflect on a variety of questions, including:

  • What are some key things that humans want to do that are 1) not forbidden by the laws of nature but are 2) simply waiting for the appropriate knowledge to be discovered?
  • What “static memes” are reflected in my ideas and behavior? What are the consequences of this? What can I do increase the proportion of dynamic memes that I employ?
  • What are occasions in which “static memes” are beneficial to humans and societies? How does one determine what is “beneficial”?
  • What explanations do I have about my own behavior or those of other important phenomena? What am I doing to test the validity of those explanations? 

One can support both the Second Amendment and public safety restrictions on guns

I’m a believer in civil liberties. I am grateful I live in a country where the First Amendment of our Constitution guarantees the freedom of speech, press, and religion.

Throughout U.S. history, the courts have consistently interpreted these civil liberties as freedoms that, while guaranteed and protected by the Constitution, are not absolutes. In a free society, it is necessary to balance individual freedoms with protection against infringements of the rights of others.

For example, we have interpreted freedom of speech not to include the freedom to falsely “shout fire in a crowded theater,” as that would incite pandemonium and threaten public safety. Our freedom of press is balanced with laws against libel and slander, as they can threaten the good name and reputation of our citizens. We rightly restrict the freedom to produce and distribute child pornography, to protect the safety and dignity of children.

While we rightly celebrate and cherish our freedom of religion, we also do not permit someone to endanger public safety (e.g. practice human sacrifice) as part of a sincerely-held religious belief, for self-evident reasons.

In the same vein, it seems reasonable to me that one can equally defend and promote the civil liberties guaranteed in the Second Amendment while balancing them with measures designed to protect public safety. This might include measures to reduce the amount of guns available that are commonly used in school shootings or more aggressive background checks.

The Second Amendment guarantees important civil liberties, just as the First Amendment does, yet in a free society that must balance individual liberty with public safety. Reasonable people can have disagree over where to draw the line, but it seems reasonable to me that one can love and cherish the freedoms guaranteed by both the First and Second Amendments while still accepting reasonable limitations on each in the interest of public safety.

In my view, being pro-Second Amendment does not require someone to also be anti-gun control, just as being pro-First Amendment does not require someone to oppose restrictions on child pornography, libel, slander, inciting public violence, or preventing human sacrifice in the name of religious freedom.

 

Ten observations on President Trump’s 2018 State of the Union address

  1. Some political science context is important. Most research shows that presidential addresses generally don’t shift public opinion on issues nor do they usually affect a president’s approval ratings. Also, presidential State of the Union proposals rarely become law. So in terms of the substantive effect of translating rhetoric into tangible political outcomes, the State of the Union is usually not terribly effective. I expect much will be the same this time around as well.
  2. Instead, State of the Union addresses are important rituals in American democracy. They give the president the opportunity to share his (or someday her) priorities and values, and an opportunity to parties to signal to their constituents, via their level and length of applause, how much they agree with the president’s agenda and values. This is important information for elected officials to provide to voters, as it enhances the ability for voters to hold elected officials accountable for their public stands on important political issues.
  3. Much to my great surprise, the first 45 minutes or so of the President’s speech was surprisingly bland, normal, and completely unlike his Twitter, campaign, and governing rhetoric. This does not negate, of course, the thousands of things he has done and said to weaken democratic norms and institutions in the United States, but if he behaved on Twitter and in other public forums the way he did in the first 45 minutes of his State of the Union address, he might be a less unpopular and more successful president. Given his patterns of past behavior, though, I’m not optimistic.
  4. For the first 45 minutes or so, President Trump’s rhetoric in this speech was more or less within the mainstream of traditionally conservative political ideology, and not at all in harmony with the more populist authoritarian rhetoric that he usually uses on Twitter and other public forums. Which Trump is the real Trump? I strongly suspect the latter.
  5. “So tonight, I call on the Congress to empower every Cabinet Secretary with the authority to reward good workers — and to remove Federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.” This is the only line that I saw that could reasonably construed as clearly authoritarian, unless clarified by strong and clear definitions as to what “fail the American people” means. (A view, by the way, expressed by both liberals and conservatives.)
  6. Around the 50-minute point, President Trump veered full-out nativist and anti-immigrant. From a personal perspective, it’s heartbreaking for me to see how much success political leaders have had over the past several years demonizing immigrants and refugees. Empirical evidence directly refutes what the president said about immigrants toward the end of his speech. For example, immigrants commit less crime than native-born Americans and are a strength to our economy. It’s sad, on a personal level, to see someone who promised to “build a wall” and claimed that Mexicans are “murderers and rapists” win a major party’s nomination and then later win a general election to be the chief representative of our country’s values and priorities.
  7. Given the talk about border security, it’s helpful to remember that research has shown that increased border security in the late 20th century actually increased the size of the undocumented population in the United States, see here.
  8. I’m glad to see the president publicly support the right of Iranians to protest against their government. Russian and Chinese citizens, though, and doing the same thing, and yet we see no similar signals of support from the U.S. president.
  9. I appreciate the president’s rhetorical support of liberal democracy toward the end of his State of the Union address. I wish his more normal rhetoric, which regularly devalues the freedom of press, the independence of the judiciary and FBI, and the integrity of our election processes were more in line with the rhetoric of his State of the Union address. It’s difficult to take him at his word when most of his rhetoric outside this setting is to the contrary.
  10. Kennedy’s Democratic response was surprisingly conventional. At a time where the most salient differences between the two major political parties in the U.S. concern what used to be non-partisan liberal democratic norms and institutions, the Democrats focus their response on traditional partisan contrasts. It’s not necessarily bad or wrong, but risks normalizing the decline of democratic norms as something not worth highlighting as the most important thing that Democrats would (theoretically) do differently if elected. Instead, I would have advised him to look America in the eye and said: “Look at Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Russia, etc. Your president is slowly turning the U.S. into an illiberal democracy like those countries, and the majority party in Congress is letting him because tax reform and other legislative priorities are more important to them. If elected, we won’t do that.”

Finally, here’s a list of fact checks for the president’s address. Politifact also has some good analysis.