You are here



Many years ago, I subscribed to an early internet group called comp.risks. It was a group of smart people who were always thinking about subtle risks of technology. I learned a lot reading posts in the group, especially about how poor humans are at assessing risks. A classic example was people trying to make infants safer on planes by requiring infant seats.

Science and Politics

As a child, as the son of a scientist, I grew up in a scientifically literate family. At first, I wanted to be a scientist myself but, even in college, I could see that the funding priorities for science were shifting.

Science used to be about basic research. Scientists trained for many years and then, having proved their judgement through education, dissertation, and the tenure process, were given free rein to pursue their own agenda, regardless of what anyone else thought of it. Most basic research is incoherent to anyone outside of a field. A naive person will scoff at what seems like the pursuit of silly or trivial questions, but many of our key innovations and advances derive from research that began this way.

It's sometimes difficult to disentangle innovation in science from engineering. The advances during World War II in both gave us unimagined new destructive powers, as well as many other capabilities in sensing (RADAR) and information processing. The synergies of these innovations have given us the modern age. And there was a time that people understood that.

Growing up in the 1960s, we were bombarded with popular messages about the primacy of scientific understanding. Tennessee Tuxedo had Phineas J Whoopee. Gumby had Professor Kapp. Einstein was beatified, if not deified. Science was respected by popular culture.

Part of this push toward science, it turns out, was driven by a lie. In the late 1950s, the US and Soviet Union saw themselves in a race to develop ICBMs. The Soviet Union succeeded in orbiting a satellite first, leading to great angst that the US was behind in the "space race". This led to a huge surge in investment in science teaching and research -- and undoubtedly influenced the public perception of the importance of science. But in point of fact, the US could have put a satellite up first. Eisenhower intentionally held back military efforts, because he wanted either civilian efforts, or Soviet efforts, to succeed first.

During the 1970s, there was a growing scientific understanding of the limits of the earth to accommodate human activity. Environmental regulation based on science were put into place to reduce pollution. But corporations weren't happy with restrictions on their ability to extract profits while shifting the costs, through environmental degradation, onto the public.

In the 1980s, Reagan was elected, who took a dim view of science and just hated government. This was when the trend began of shifting all of the growth in the economy away from government and working people to put in the hands of the very wealthy. The government was invoked as a bogeyman to explain why there weren't jobs or people couldn't be paid more.

I've always been horrified by presidents singling out particular scientific projects to mock -- not just Republicans, but Democrats too. Bill Clinton mocked a grant to study the blood of horseshoe crabs -- like it was something crazy -- and evidently not understanding that the horseshoe crab immune system has unique properties that make it essential to medical testing. George W. Bush mocked a homeland defense bill that included a line item to create a new building to house the nation's collection of "bugs and worms" -- not understanding the important of bugs and worms to agriculture and that they're stored in alcohol which, if attacked could cause the whole building to go up in flames.

Today, science is under siege. Basic research is all but dead. Wisconsin has undermined tenure. And the current president rejects science on climate change as a "Chinese hoax". His "ban on Muslims" is already blocking scientists coming to study here.

In World War II, the Germans killed off and chased away their Jewish scientists -- including the man who first envisioned the possibility of creating a nuclear bomb, Leo Szilard. Einstein was also a Jewish refugee. And many, many others.

Science is not perfect: It is a human endeavor. Science sometimes fares badly when paired with journalism, which is more interested in headlines and controversy than the long arc of theory. Or when used as a substitute for ethics. But science is the best we've got if we want to take reality into account when making decisions. And we ignore it at our peril.

Pacing My Outrage

It's been a painful month since the election. In fact, it's been a painful year of bitter disappointment -- a roller coaster from Bernie to burnout.

There are a lot of people running around expressing a frenzy of outrage. I don't say the outrage is wrong. There are plenty of things to be outraged about: the voter suppression efforts, the Russian hacking, the partisan interference of Comey, etc. And the cabinet picks, each worse than the last. But it's too early for me. I'm still in mourning. I don't want to waste my outrage on trial balloons and shadows. Or tweets. I'm going to try to pace myself for the long haul.

My biggest concern, actually, is the collapse of the strong institutions of United States governance. On the one hand, we have the FBI, which reportedly supports the alt-right, leading to Comey's letter. And now the CIA is leaking details about the Russian interference in the election in advance of the Electoral College vote. When the intelligence agencies start intervening in domestic affairs, anything might happen. The loss of our institutions would be worse than anything Trump could do directly in four years.

What can we do? More than anything, I believe, we need to take positive, affirmative steps forward. I applaud people who are organizing. As we close out the year, I plan to reflect on my current commitments and think about how to dedicate my time going forward to make a positive difference. And to be ready for what comes next.

These are "interesting" times indeed.

Pardon Edward Snowden

I wrote a letter to Barack Obama today:

I encourage you to pardon Edward Snowden. He should be recognized as a national hero. At great risk to himself — and only after exhausting all legitimate means — he alerted the American people to the rogue behavior of the national security apparatus. As the next president comes into power with the turn-key authoritarian state that has been constructed, we will need heroes like Snowden even more. Please let him come home and continue to advocate for our freedom and national security.

I have written similar sentiments before, for example in Exceptionalism or Imperialism and Amash Amendment.

Religion or ideology

Donald Trump continues to announce his extreme right-wing picks for his cabinet. Each one seems worse than the next. I am particularly disturbed by the choices of Michael Flynn and Steve Bannon.

Both Flynn and Bannon believe that the United States is, or ought to be, a Christian state. They believe "we" are fighting a war against Islam, which they say is an "idealogy" rather than a religion. They seemingly get that first amendment protects "religion", but evidently take this to mean that by labeling a religion as an "ideology", it should not receive protection. But if they believe in the first amendment, they will also recognize that "we" are not Christian. Steve Bannon says:

when capitalism was I believe at its highest flower and spreading its benefits to most of mankind, almost all of those capitalists were strong believers in the Judeo-Christian West. They were either active participants in the Jewish faith, they were active participants in the Christians’ faith, and they took their beliefs, and the underpinnings of their beliefs was manifested in the work they did. And I think that’s incredibly important and something that would really become unmoored. I can see this on Wall Street today — I can see this with the securitization of everything

Note: It says "securitization", but based on comments elsewhere in his speech, I believe he means "secularization", e.g. "The other tendency is an immense secularization of the West. And I know we’ve talked about secularization for a long time, but if you look at younger people, especially millennials under 30, the overwhelming drive of popular culture is to absolutely secularize this rising iteration" and "I certainly think secularism has sapped the strength of the Judeo-Christian West to defend its ideals".

Bannon is putting his finger on a problem: that capitalism has become unmoored from any other measure of morality. But to make the assumption that the only kind of morality worthy of consideration is a Christian morality leads us down a very dark path indeed.

Not Surprised

When I met a friend recently, who had supported Hillary in the primary, I said, "I'm only going to say it once, but… I told you so."

In the end, I was not that surprised when Trump was elected president. Disappointed, but not that surprised. It was exactly the scenario I had expressed concern about during the primary. In a year where huge numbers of people indicated that the most important problem was establishment politics as usual, the Democratic party put up perhaps the preeminent establishment politician of all time.

It was a fatal mistake. And it will probably have dramatic and permanent effects for our country -- and for the world.

Or maybe not. There's simply no way to guess what Trump will actually do. And there's no way to tell what the establishment Republicans will do in response. It's going to be a weird and wild ride.

I believe that Trump will turn out to be way more establishment friendly than his followers believe. Although the Democrats let down working-class people by failing to fight for them, it was the Republicans who were the architects of the changes that ruined their lives. Trump will probably make things much, much worse for them.

I recognize that, as a white person with relatively stable employment, in the bluest state in the Union, I'm in a uniquely privileged position to muse about the outcomes. I really feel for my Jewish, minority, and LGBTQ friends who are honestly (and realistically) fearful for their safety.

But perhaps even more than the loss to Trump, I'm disturbed by the circular firing squad mentality among the Democrats. People are pointing fingers at millennials, blacks, women, Latinos and anyone else who is identified as having not sufficiently turned out for Hillary. Or, God forbid, having voted for Trump.

Instead, we need to pick ourselves up, lick our wounds, and start working to put forward candidates that are electable. That's what a party is for.

Trading in your fly-swatter for a hammer

I don't have any inside information about what's been going on in the schools in Amherst, but I had an insight many years ago that provides a lens to help me understand what's happening now.

When my children were in elementary school, Alisa got involved in the Parent Guardian Group (PGG) at Mark's Meadow. Later, she ran for School Committee and, after a relatively tough campaign, won a seat. What struck me more than anything else was our first parent-teacher conference after she was a school committee member rather than a parent: it completely transformed her relationship with the school. And she discovered she needed to be very careful of what she said and what issues she tried to address: because everything she said was interpreted differently.

I came up with an analogy that helped me understand what had happened: As a member of the PGG, it was like she had a fly-swatter, which was great for addressing small problems in-and-around the school. But it wasn't effective for crafting policy or making real change. When she joined the school committee, it was like trading in her fly-swatter for a hammer. A hammer is great for accomplishing real work -- but it's terrible for swatting flies. And if you try to use it for swatting flies, you just break everything. This is exactly what I think we've had over the past few months.

When you serve on a committee, you choose to invest your effort in helping the committee craft effective policy. But it means you lose the ability to try to address problems directly, outside of that venue. You get to influence the actual policy but, if you don't agree with the outcomes, you have to either accept and support them — or leave the committee. What you *can't* do, is try to have it both ways: you can't have an inside track in trying to affect policy and, at the same time, try to rabble-rouse outside the committee to put pressure on the process. You have to choose one or the other. When you don't, you end up with outcomes like what we've seen: where the committee has lost the ability to provide effective governance.

Cheap Shots

There have been a variety of posts coming out recently critiquing the left for dismissing Trump's candidacy (Hillbilly Elegy, Strangers in their Own Land, and others). Today, it's Fabius Maximuson on Matt Taibi.

These critiques claim that people on the right are offended by liberals who refuse engage with them on the issues: Why they lose: the Left tells us that Trump is like Hitler. I can see why they might call it a cheap shot.

But it's actually not. Trump ACTUALLY IS a fascist, by claiming irrationally that he's the only one that can fix things; by creating a cult of personality; by asserting that torture works and he'll use more of it; by claiming he can unilaterally circumvent the constitution to discriminate against people based on race and religion. Trump ACTUALLY DOES espouse anti-science and anti-reality positions. Trump is a fraud and a liar. It is not a cheap shot to point these things out. Rather, it is a cheap shot to claim that liberals "dismiss" Trump just because he spouts lies that some people want to hear. And a bunch of Trump's simplistic ideas are just stupid: like The Wall.

The US could build "a wall", but it would be a terrible use of resources. It would be much better to assess how best to effect change and to use the money thoughtfully for a hundred different policies (e.g. hire more staff, build better databases, etc.) and investments (buy drones, cameras, and early detection systems) that would give us the greatest bang for the buck. But that's complicated and requires policy wonks to develop and implement. And, unfortunately, that's not what a lot of people want to hear.

After the Massachusetts primary, I mused about the situation as I saw it: namely that there is a strong anti-establishment wind blowing in both parties and that it was a terrible mistake for the Democrats to double-down on the one person who is perhaps the greatest living embodiment of the elite establishment candidate.

while establishment Democrats would probably line up behind whoever the nominee is, the disaffected people will not. I suspect they will probably be a lot more willing to cross party lines: They don't care who burns everything down, as long as someone does. I really worry that being able to tap into the disaffected vote of both parties might be enough to carry Trump to victory.

The Democrats could have chosen Bernie. This is a consistent fatal pattern with the Democrats: picking the candidate whose turn it is, rather than looking at what the times and circumstances require. Still: we live in a democracy (sort of) and the people have spoken (sort of) and we'll just have to live with the consequences.

Trump does not take positions

If one thing makes me angry about coverage during this political campaign, it's the assertion that Donald Trump might change his positions. From the Guardian:

Some in the crowd sensed that behind the brash reiteration of mass deportations Trump was in fact edging towards a more moderate, viable, policy. “I think he’s loosening up, becoming more realistic,” said Nancy Lewis, 56, a retired law enforcer. “And I’m OK with that. I have Hispanic friends.”

No. If one thing has become clear, Donald Trump does not take positions. He says whatever comes into his head at the moment. He does have some tendencies and prejudices that show up frequently, like xenophobia, ignorance, and vituperativeness. But these are not policy positions. He does not have a set of well-thought-out or carefully considered set of policies on anything.

Perhaps this is what attracts some people to him. Perhaps most people are like him in this regard: it's the rare person that can actually develop and maintain a coherent set of positions. In fact, nobody can really do it without a broadly trained set of policy advisors. But the mistake is believing that anything that Trump says represents an underlying, considered position. The only thing that is a constant is his ceaseless effort to angle for a momentary advantage.

It's a very weird election cycle.

Houseparty at Vickery's

Last night, I attended a houseparty at Peter Vickery's for John Bonifaz, a candidate for secretary of the commonwealth. He gave an excellent talk that described how he'd been led to found the National Voting Rights Institute to try to advance a radical agenda that every vote be counted and other extreme ideas, laid out in a Voter's Bill of Rights. He's got my support.

Subscribe to RSS - politics