George Sarant

A raw feed of material that may be updated or appear elsewhere.

Archive for November 2012

THANKSGIVING

leave a comment »

Tomorrow over 50 million turkeys will be consumed in America as families gather around the Thanksgiving dinner table. How all those turkeys get there is a mystery to most people. They never really have to think about it, but the production, distribution, and sale of the ingredients in this dinner are emblematic of the miracle of the market. Specialization and mass production enable it all to be provided at a low cost. 

Less than a century and a half ago you would have had to raise your own turkey on the farm, where you would more likely still be living, or go out and hunt for a wild one. Then you’d have to go through the work of slaughtering, plucking and cleaning it, which few of us today could do without a lot of angst. Fortunately today someone else takes care of that.

The ancestors of the gobbler we eat today was a wild turkey of the kind you can still see in natural settings. It is a much leaner bird than the gobbler, whose plumpness is a product of controlled breeding over many generations, and like many other domestic animals, does not exist in the natural world. It is native to North America, but the appellation we now give to the Meleagris gallopavo actually got its name from the country Turkey, via the British, since much early American trade had to pass through Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) on its way to England.

In the past the Thanksgiving meal did not always contain turkey, until preservation and mass production made it practical and inexpensive for everyone. The holiday itself goes back to colonial times, but was first officially proclaimed by President George Washington, and subsequently fixed as the fourth Thursday in November by a congressional resolution in 1941. It was originally supposed to be a day of prayer and thanksgiving, but modern times have seen a number of other things added to it, such as football games in the 1890s, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade beginning in 1924, the presidential turkey pardon in begun by Ronald Reagan in 1987 and the commercial “black Friday” on the following day. This is how traditions come about. 

Most people still give thanks, but you always have those on the fringes who try to spoil the holiday, such as atheists who object to the religious nature of observances, and others, such as nutty professors who label it a day predicated on the “genocide” of the native population. This is the sort of thing that appeals to the conscience of some liberals, who cannot abide anything that any minority finds offensive, no matter how innocuous. For them it becomes a day of misgivings rather than thanksgivings. 

Otherwise, families across the country will gather around the table  to give thanks and have their turkey dinner, and they do indeed have a lot to be thankful about, due to the work, sacrifice, as well as the inventiveness of their ancestors. For although it may not be the best of times, they are fortunate to be living now as citizens of this great land and to partake of its bounty. Let us give thanks. 

 

Written by georgesarant

November 21, 2012 at 6:40 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , ,

WE’RE NOT LIKE THAT

leave a comment »

I recently saw a decidedly dopey television program which purports to show what would happen if the power suddenly went off everywhere. The government conveniently disappears and something called the militia represents the bad guys, (although in the real world the militia is usually something that maintains order) and people behave violently and selfishly. Younger audiences seem to have bought into this nonsense, but I’ve seen enough disasters to know that people in this country do not revert to savagery.  We don’t inevitably descend into what Thomas Hobbes called a “war of all against all.” 

 

To be sure there are those who behave badly on gas lines, or when stores are out of necessities. But generally, as we’ve seen in the great storm that just hit the Atlantic coast, people if anything become more cooperative with others and helpful to their neighbors. Indeed when the government failed to come through, volunteers from everywhere did.

 

However, this is by no means a universal behavioral characteristic, insofar as there are many countries where personal trust is very low and anarchy can indeed arise, but America is not one of them. There may be some communities where such things might happen, but by and large this country is blessed with a very strong civil society. In what is normally the most anonymous place in the country, New York City, people remarkably come together in a crisis. 

 

It may be possible, at some point, for an enemy to actually disrupt the electric grid unless we shore up our electronic defenses, and we are indeed very reliant upon electricity. However the fallacy is that the government would somehow disappear and chaos would ensue. But the state would not suddenly disappear, and although it might not be able to do a lot of the things it does now,  it could still perform its most basic functions. There was civilized life before electricity, and this country had a well-established democratic government in the 19th century before Edison’s inventions. What we do electronically today was done mechanically, albeit much slower and with greater effort.  Nevertheless everything in our wired world is predicated on the civilization which preceded it, and it is more likely that we would simply revert no further back than that, rather than fall apart. Furthermore human ingenuity would soon enough develop technologies appropriate to the situation, which would improve life before long.

 

However such a general, nationwide apocalypse is unlikely to happen if basic precautions are taken. There may be disruptions that make it seem like that, such as the terrible storm the east coast just experienced, where after two weeks there are still areas without assistance, due to official ineptitude. People have been on their own, and many are still suffering, but they have not gone crazy. Citizens rise to the occasion, and where they can they assist their neighbors.  It is not inevitable that we would descend into chaos.  I’m not suggesting that human beings are inherently good, but at least most people in this society have been inculcated with the spirit that Tocqueville observed in the 19th century, reflected in free association, spontaneous organization, and cooperative group behavior; and that was long before our electronic age. 

 

Written by georgesarant

November 11, 2012 at 10:12 PM

ELECTION RESULTS

leave a comment »

The recent election could have gone either way, based upon shifting polls and momentum. It was probably not the watershed election many now claim it is, nor was it primarily a reflection of demographic trends. It was, rather, simply a case of who actually showed up to vote. How could the predictions of so many conservative-leaning analysts have, for the first time really, been so wrong? There was an assumption that groups voting for Obama would not turn out in the same numbers as they did the last time, which didn’t happen. Furthermore, prior to this election it was almost always the case that many polls chronically undercounted those who wound up voting Republican. This time that didn’t happen, as millions of likely Republican voters did not turn out, and Romney actually wound up winning fewer votes than McCain did last time. For months it seemed as though they were the more energized voters, with more motivation to go out and vote, but in the end that was not the case. Why not? 

These days it is generally understood that, in simple terms, the Democrats overall are the “party of government,” while the Republicans are the opposite. Democrats are far more likely to oppose cuts in public spending and instead advocate increases. It follow that people who are dependent on government, either because it supports them, or they directly or indirectly work for it, are more likely to support Democrats. But it goes deeper than that. They are also more likely to be interested in government and politics as a result.  The Obama campaign “micro-targeted” these voters and successfully aroused the fear that Romney was a threat to them, thus leading to a greater propensity to vote. On the other side, people who get nothing from the state are more likely to be less interested or enthused about the political process. They don’t care as much, which means it takes a lot more effort to persuade them about how it directly affects them, i.e.  in terms of costs, unless there are other issues salient enough to capture their attention.

What is occurring here may well signal the beginning of a new paradigm vis a vis political behavior. It replicates what we have seen for many years in local school board or other district elections. Public employee unions are well-organized and highly motivated to get people to vote their way, which often happens, because turnout is generally sparse in such elections. Even though this often results in tax increases, they have to become especially onerous before people are motivated enough to negatively respond. (This is not intended to be a rap on everyone who works for the government, often in necessary fields, but rather what the unions do with their money). At the national level it may be too simple to view this in terms of“makers and takers,”  but clearly the more people are brought into the government orbit, the more likely they are to vote for more government, and, it now appears, they are also more likely to vote, period. 

 This doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve reached the tipping point in terms of dependency yet, but it does indicate, for the present, that the Republicans have a lot of work to do in terms of organization and bringing out the vote. 

 

Written by georgesarant

November 10, 2012 at 11:32 PM

NO RECRIMINATIONS

with one comment

After the expenditure of billions of dollars, endless months of continuous campaigning, and the efforts of so many people, the end result of this election is that things are pretty much where they were before the election. Not much changed. The Democrats continue to occupy the White House and Senate, while the Republicans control the House of Representatives and most of the Governors and legislatures across the country. One thing everyone can agree on is that there has to be a better way, not just in terms of the way we conduct elections, but the voting system, where people needlessly have to stand on line for nearly three hours in cold weather, as we did here. The answer for the election situation is to mandate time-limited campaigns and allow elected public officials the preponderant say in terms of who their party nominates, as I’ve stated many times here.

As far as voting goes, this is a state and local matter, and as with many things, we should see what works best experimentally in different places before changing things wholesale. In this connection, I was happy to see that Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana, and hopefully the feds will not interfere. This gives us an opportunity to see how this works when implemented, what the consequences and results are, and whether it is a viable policy. In my view the “war on drugs” has been a disaster, costing billions of dollars, showing little progress or making things worse, and needlessly incarcerating massive numbers of people for nonviolent offenses. We now have an opportunity to observe what will happen in a controlled experiment and take things from there. There are fifty states and thousands of local governments, any of which can be a laboratory for policy experimentation. The worst thing we can do is adopt policies at the federal level, as often happens, without a clue as to what the consequences will be. In addition, the best decisions are those made closest to home.

Overall this election produced stasis, and possibly continuing gridlock, which sometimes is not a bad thing when it stands of the way of more and more federal control, but not a good thing when serious problems are left unaddressed, especially our precarious finances, which are the result of years and years of borrowing and spending more money than we take in. It is useless to blame one side or the other. What needs to be achieved here is a consensus, which inherently means compromise. Here the onus is on the President to provide leadership, not to insist on having his way, but rather to get involved in the political give and take and nudge things towards a solution. That requires approaching things with a sense of humility, particularly insofar as the election results were far closer than the last time, meaning many more people were dissatisfied with his leadership or policies, like the still unpopular unwieldy health care overhaul, which could and should have been approached incrementally and experimentally as described above.

However, the notion that we are a nation closely divided is far less salient than it seems to be on the surface. This was a very fluid election that could have gone either way. Some will try and assign blame to one thing or another, which usually means hammering something they don’t like and didn’t like before, attributing the loss to that. But it just isn’t that simple, just like the endless shallow “analysis” that incessantly points to the Republicans’ supposed “demographic” problem. I truly loathe the division of the population into identity or interest groups. It is poisonous, but more importantly it is simplistic. The fallacy is that people assigned to these discrete groups vote primarily based upon an identification with that group, when in reality, for most of the population this is not a serious consideration in how they make a political decision. None of this rationalizing would be happening if the presidential election had gone the other way, which could have easily occurred.

Prior to the east coast storm it probably would have gone the other way. At that point Romney had the momentum going into the final days until the storm came and dominated the headlines for several days, after which, for whatever reason, the trajectory of things was reversed. There are always unanticipated events, and clearly if the election had been held on a different day, or during a different week the results would not have been the same. For if the polls were fairly accurate on election day they presumably were accurate on other days predicting different results. That being the case, and given the closeness of the election, there is no room for triumphalism or recrimination, since neither side was able to sway the population decisively.

Then there are intangibles. Ironically, Romney  was actually still favored on the economy and most other issues. He lost on empathy, or the perception of it. There were also some instances of self-inflicted wounds, where Republicans managed to blow the Senate due to incredibly inept candidates, (although the Democrats were able to elect a truly nutty candidate, Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, despite having gone through life with a farcical American Indian heritage). Nor does the blame fall on the tea party, which has been almost entirely about financial problems, not the social issues that led to goofy gaffes by these candidates. In short there is no blame to assign anywhere, outside of unanticipated circumstances, and recriminations are pointless.

Written by georgesarant

November 7, 2012 at 6:07 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , ,

PARTISANSHIP, IDEOLOGY AND TRUTH

leave a comment »

It is troubling how partisans of each side predict a win in tomorrow’s election for their candidate based upon differing favorable polls. This is at best wishful thinking because no one really know what is going to happen. There are simply too many variables, in terms of who turns out, in what numbers, etc. Predictions of decisive victory are mostly based upon a best case scenario for their candidate, which seldom ever happens any more than the worst case does. What is disturbing is that while people are entitled to their own opinions, they are not entitled to their own facts, as Senator Moynihan once said- or are they? 

Increasingly we find people in many fields seeking out facts to support their preconceived notions or preferences. These things may in and of themselves often be factual, but taken out of context, or ignoring contradictory evidence makes their veracity highly questionable. This happens even in scientific pursuits, and is one of the main reasons why so much innovation is brought about by individuals who are not bound by the conventional wisdom. This sort of fact mining is especially bad in social sciences, where studies are concocted to prove that other people, (especially conservatives) are crazy. But when I hear a social psychology professor has conducted a study to prove great similarities between conservatives and Nazis, it makes me wonder about the value of “social psychology,” to the extent that it can seriously entertain such ideologically biased nonsense. This does not mean that truth is just relative, or that there is no  objective truth, but rather that you can only begin to perceive it when you dispense with all blinders. 

Fact-mining  is at its worst and most obvious in political campaigns. Even where there are “fact checkers” they may also bring their own biases into the process. The reality is that people are predisposed to believe the “facts” conjured up by someone they agree with, less due to the facts than due to their own preferences. The root of all of this is more emotional than rational. People’s sense of right and wrong is based less upon information than feelings, and that sense is at the root of political ideology, for those who are driven by it. Most people are not that political, otherwise we would all be at each others’ throats all the time. Many people do have crypto-ideological predispositions they may not be aware of, so the goal of political campaigns is to try and bring them to a conscious level, or at least to the point where individuals intuit that someone is saying the right things. Others simply are unaffected, if not uninterested, and these are the ones who make up the bulk of the “undecideds,” who ironically often decide the election outcome. 

It disturbing how much of this election is predicated on one side getting out “their” people to vote as opposed to the “other,”  often motivated by a fear of what the other might do if they get power. This has lead many observers to bemoan the extent of “hyper-partisanship,” although to me it does not appear to be especially different from the past. Obviously things would be more congenial if there were a broader appeal, but we don’t get there by laying all or most of the blame on one side, as does a coterie of intellectuals formerly associated with the right, much to the glee of liberal media. They have spun a new myth, that it is all the fault of congressional Republicans, largely because they don’t like some of the things many of them, or more particularly their supporters, believe in. In this category are people like Norman Ornstein of the supposedly conservative American Enterprise institute, David Frum, and the editors of the British magazine The Economist, who get off on pompously lecturing us on what we ought to be doing. I personally do not agree with some of the social positions now attributed to the party, but I find the notion that one side is mostly to blame for this preposterous. All these observers are doing is expressing their own biases. 

Underlying this sort of thinking is the notion that things would be fine if those other people would just disappear. But life is never that simple, and that sort of thinking was the foundation of the murderous totalitarian excesses of the last century, where regimes actually did “disappear” perceived enemies. In a democracy what you have to do is try and reach some kind of consensus, starting with the things you may agree upon. For in reality many of the most daunting problems we face don’t have that many options and whoever is in power can only act within certain parameters. Other things are totally unexpected or beyond our control so that anyone in office is inevitably constricted by the circumstances they find themselves in. Approaching these things through the prism of ideology just leads to more problems, as we have seen over the past several years. 

Given that we are handing over power to someone else to see to things that may affect us, the real choice we have should depend on character and judgement, since no one knows what particular events are likely to occur in the future. My own view is the less they stir the pot the better, because every action has unanticipated consequences, and when it comes to government they are usually not good. That said, there are important  differences and I am supporting the candidate of my choice, but I don’t begrudge anyone else who thinks differently. 

 

Written by georgesarant

November 5, 2012 at 10:05 PM

THE ELECTION

leave a comment »

 

If the polls still show a dead heat by the end of the day, my guess is that Romney will win the election for a couple of reasons.  The polls chronically undercount Republican voters, who usually wind up running ahead of what the polls predict. Whatever undecideds are left usually break for the challenger not the incumbent. Right now both sides are putting their faith in the polls that show them running best, with a lot of wishful thinking that may or may not pan out. 

There is something incongruous in a system where after months upon months of nonstop campaigning and the expenditure of two billion dollars the race is still too close to call. As I’ve indicated in the past, we need election reform, or at the least some kind of limit on the amount of time in which campaigns can be conducted. As it stands now politicians must put far more effort into campaigning than into governing, especially at the congressional level, although this president has broken all records for the unprecedented amount of time he has spent campaigning. 

That is one of the biggest problems of this administration. He is far more comfortable campaigning with agreeable crowds than with the nuts and bolts of government, or with the engagement and political give and take that is required to get anything done, where he is totally clueless. He is patronizing and petulant because his self-regard, reinforced by those around him, vastly exceeds his actual abilities. He made little effort to work with the opposition, and when his party had full control of the congress he left crucial details to them and forced through a monstrous, costly, unpopular, and poorly conceived health care bill instead of focusing on the economy, job creation, and growth first and foremost. The result is that people are no better off than they were four years ago, and things are not getting significantly better. 

Given all that, his campaign has been devoid of substance, reliant on celebrities, and on attacking his opponent with little in the way of a positive message. He has avoided even the generally supportive mainstream media,  instead trivializing the office by going on late night television, talk  and comedy shows etc. where he only has to answer congenial softball questions. Meanwhile our standard of living is declining, and many of us who have been around awhile realize sadly that life was better in past decades, and the country we have known and loved seems to be slipping away. Granted the President is not responsible for all of this, and indeed blame goes across the board in terms of ineptitude. The problem is that he has shown no capacity to address these fundamental problems and has provided no vision for doing so in the future, and is completely lacking in leadership skills. Strictly based on performance, this election shouldn’t even be close. 

The House of Representatives will remain in Republican hands, and possibly the Senate, (although a couple of goofy candidates may have blown the latter). That means there would be stormy days ahead if there is divided government and the outlook will be dismal. On the other hand, if Romney is elected there is at least the possibility that some of these problems may be successfully addressed, we may begin to get out of debt, and business confidence will be restored. In that eventuality I believe the stock market will rise and more importantly we will see an economic boom in the years ahead. There will be major job growth, a renaissance in American industry, and rising incomes across the board. Even if you don’t care much for Republicans the choice you have is to continue the dismal present or take a chance on something better.  After four years of “charisma” it’s time for some competence. 

 

Written by georgesarant

November 5, 2012 at 5:35 AM

THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE

leave a comment »

There is an increasing possibility that Romney may win the popular vote and lose in the electoral college. This is likely to result in calls to abolish the electoral college, as there were after the 2000 election. There are a number of reasons why this would not be a good idea. Given past history and current potential voting patterns the electoral college does not give an advantage to either party. If the election was to be decided by the popular vote, and if that vote was very close, as has happened frequently, it would be far more perilous to recount votes nationally than in a single contentious state. In addition, any attempt to change the electoral college wholesale will fail for the simple reason that smaller states would lose out and get even less attention than they are getting now. Since smaller states outnumber larger states there is no way such a change could get through congress, where a 2/3 majority is required, never mind the states, where a 3/4 majority is mandated, to pass a constitutional amendment. Since an amendment is required to make such a change there is simply no way it would ever pass. In any event, there are always unintended consequences when something is changed at the federal level before it has been tried in the states, which is why the federal government should be doing far less than it does and allow the states to experiment more.

However, incremental changes are possible. According to the constitution “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress….” This means that the state legislature could select the electors in any number of different ways. Nothing binds us to the “winner take all” system that prevails in most states; it is simply convention. 

One suggestion out of California is that state electors be mandated to vote for the winner of the national popular vote. This is ridiculous because it effectively disenfranchises not only the voting minority, but the majority as well, so no one’s vote counts. For example, it is quite possible for one candidate to win the popular vote in that state, but lose the national popular vote, which would then require the electors to vote for a candidate that they, and the majority of the state’s voters, opposed. 

Nevertheless, nothing stops a state from allocating its electoral votes the way they see fit. In a large state those voting for the losing candidate are technically disenfranchised because the winner gets all the state’s electoral votes. But this could easily be changed. For example, there is nothing to stop a state from allocating its votes by congressional districts, giving the electoral vote to the winner in each district. In that case instead of one candidate getting all the state’s electoral votes, they would be apportioned based on who carried each district. This system is actually being used now in Maine and Nebraska. There is nothing to stop other states from doing the same, or for creating electoral districts on some other basis. As indicated in the constitution, the states have a fixed number of electoral votes which their legislatures can apportion in any number of different ways. 

Thus changing the electoral college begins at the state level, as it should. Realistically however, politicians are more likely to consider changes less on the merits than whether or not they get any political advantage from it. Any change is going to produce winners and losers, so the only way that significant changes can be implemented is through consensus, which is as it should be. 

 

Written by georgesarant

November 3, 2012 at 5:43 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , ,