Wednesday, November 15, 2017


There are two reasons for optimism about the future.  One is beautifully described by Robert Reich in this vid.  

The point is that if Trump, in one final act of oblivious slapstick, stepped into an open manhole and disappeared out the sewer system to somewhere unknown, we’d hardly miss him.  Except for the entertainment value.  We’d have a little extra energy since it wouldn’t be necessary to block and evade his tiny efforts to be important.  But he isn’t acting as an effective president and we should be grateful because if he were effective, he might be dangerous.  Keep him busy arguing you-did/you-didn’t with Putin.

The other thing is that the rule of law is not a monument, meant to celebrate something from the past forever, to be big and obvious.  The rule of law is written words and can be renegotiated.  But not frivolously, which is why there are a lot of procedures written into the law.  In a democracy the final version represents the “will of the people” for the simple reason that otherwise the laws will be disregarded.  Those who cheat and lie to pass laws will be discredited.

Now we can see that the world has changed enough to demand some rethinking, like about the boundaries of voting districts and whether it isn’t time to dump the whole idea of the electoral college anyway.  Too bad that we can’t just have people vote on some version of Twitter:  one person, one vote.  Too bad that we’ve discovered that such a system would be easily hackable.  And that it would become a huge database useful for finding people who don’t necessarily want to be found.  And that it would mean that anyone without access to the Internet would be screwed out of their citizenship.

In the field of ethics there are basic strategies: 
  1. Where you are coming from, your essential nature from the past
  2. Where you are going, what you aspire to
  3. What are your basic rules/laws, the non-negotiables
  4. What are your basic principles, which are more abstract but the source of rules/laws
  5. What virtue (arete) is illustrated by the best people
Changing times mean that all five of the above may shift.  For instance, the essential nature of the origin of America can no longer be assumed to be invading Europeans.  But neither can the origin story be assumed to be ended now, because it is primordial, far earlier than written history, and we’re still finding out things from DNA and fossils.  Shifts of point of view mean women, Chinese, African-Americans, Muslims, and children must be included.  And all the others we haven’t heard about yet.

Also, as we go global, we must consider the essential nature of the places from which people come.  For instance, post-Columbus Europe is a tale of carnage, greed, and the struggle to invent nations.  Canadians and Africans will more easily understand that government is often conflated with commerce.  (Hudson’s Bay Co, De Beers Diamonds)  Italians and French can understand what it means to mix religion with government.

Where we are going is the most difficult question to answer.  Too many people think that we should aspire to the past, though if the past had worked then, it wouldn’t have changed.  Yet, how do we define something we’ve never conceived of before?

The problem with rules and laws are at least two-fold:  definitions are crucial, as those know who wrestle with issues of conception, ensoulment, the emergence of a human being from a mass of cells, early identification of damaged fetuses.  These are entwined with technology, because otherwise we would not know much of this.

The other problem (related to ignoring laws that people don’t like) is the refusal of authorities to identify or prosecute cases.  This is happening in Washington DC as much as on main street.  The wrestling match is not the one in court over what happened and what the consequences should be, but rather who can force authorities to do their jobs.  While down on the street, the designated enforcers go rogue, violent beyond reason.

Some laws are based on “natural law” which can be economic.  If the balance of wealth and justice becomes too unbalanced without anyone noticing and then is revealed, the collective emotion of the hive will turn against the “royalty.”  The problem until now has not been that the wealth and dominance have been hidden, but that they are celebrated as a sign of virtue.  Our notion of “arete” is hardly Greek in the classic sense.

Our identification of those who have virtue seems to be limited to those who are dead, and then their deservingness is more controlled by whether there is a monument than what the facts of their lives might have been.

Another danger of the hagiographical (saint-making) approach to arete is that it is sometimes impossible for ordinary people to imitate and that it can shade over into the unreal.  (I’m thinking about Mother Teresa as the popular example of compassion when in fact her frankly stated policy was that it was a “beautiful thing” for babies to starve to death.)

The technical innovations that have confused so much (the pill, the internet) could also renew our world.  Are changing it now as we gradually begin to understand that Facebook et al are not just communicating with grandma, but are creating a data shadow that is the equivalent of removing one wall of your private home.  We used to worry about the government making a list of all the guns a person owned, so they could come take them away.  Today, those wishing ill to people could just erase everyone’s Social Security account, since those ID numbers are now key to commerce and consequently link to passwords and ads.

One of the problems of data is that they don’t reveal rewards as a result of restraint (NOT prosecuting) or commodification of “favors” to be exchanged as needed, possibly without connections between them.  Computers might not pick them up, though screen writers use them as plot devices all the time.  Emoluments aren’t always obvious.  Did anyone think through Trump’s increased profits from his Washington DC hotel or Mar-a-Lago simply because he was the President?

Another weakness of “rule of law” is that regulation is commonly hidden below the level of public laws that must be openly passed.  If one is willing to play the “long game” by changing small regulations a bit at a time over a long period, one can gradually erode the goal of protective laws into actually becoming an advantage for the already advantaged.  All the marbles roll into a pre-determined corner, quietly, one at a time.

One way people are reassuring themselves about the current mess is saying that government and officials are ALWAYS corrupt, that this is standard, every politician is evil, and there’s no escape.  But I don’t believe it.  Nevertheless, the times feel too much like we are standing up in a canoe.

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