Tony Cunningham on Pride and Peril – America in the Polish Mirror

Nations understandably wish to think well of themselves, just like individual citizens.  Yet the natural emotions of pride and shame are invariably more complicated when it comes to nations because their histories and doings extend beyond any individual’s life.

If I fail to live up to my responsibilities as a son, brother, friend, husband, father, or philosophy professor, the flaws and failures are on me in a fundamental way.  My shame expresses a sense of personal diminishment—I deem myself less than I should be.  Of course, circumstances beyond my control can influence my success in all things, so there can be mitigating factors with respect to feeling proud or ashamed.  Perhaps the deck was stacked against me, or then again, maybe it was stacked in my favor.  If so, then sheer happenstance may temper my personal responsibility to some degree, for good or ill.  If I have done shameful things, perhaps I should be pitied more than reviled in some cases.  Without a doubt, the proper grounds for pride and shame can be complex, but when it comes to nations, the details are even more complicated.  For instance, if I consider the extermination of native peoples in American history, I can’t sensibly say that I bear any personal responsibility, and yet, the idea that I might still feel ashamed as an American makes perfect sense to me.

In this light, consider a bill recently signed by Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda.  The law imposes prison sentences of up to three years for claiming “publicly and contrary to the facts” that “the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich” in Poland.  The Nazis murdered at least 3 million Jewish Poles during World War II, so there can be no denying that horrific, shameful deeds were perpetrated in Poland.  Though death camps like Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor operated on Polish soil, they were undeniably Nazi camps, not “Polish concentration camps.”

Given these facts, one way to interpret this law, legislation advanced by the Polish nationalist populist party, Law and Justice, is to see it as an honest attempt to discourage and punish slander that paints Poles as complicit perpetrators, rather than victims of Nazi crimes against humanity.  Thus, President Duda insists that the law means to protect the “dignity” of Poland against defamation, and if you take him at his word, why shouldn’t Poles wish to preserve their good name?

Some critics of the law have just one thing to say in response: Jedwabne.  On July 10th, 1941, many (maybe most) of the Jewish residents in the town of Jedwabne were executed.  Historian Jan Gross chronicled the event in his Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland.

The slaughter of Jedwabne Jews lasted an entire day, and it was confined to a space no bigger than a sports stadium.  Sleszytlski’s barn, where the majority of the pogrom victims were burned in the afternoon, was but a stone’s throw from the square in the center of town.  The Jewish cemetery, where many of the victims were knifed, clubbed, and stoned to death, is just across the road.

Though the town was occupied by Nazis, the executions were carried out by
non-Jewish residents of the town, basically a case of one part of the populace killing the other.  Germans were present, but Gross details a situation where these Nazi occupiers were merely observers, not the perpetrators of the pogrom.  As he concludes, “And so everybody who was in town on this day and in possession of a sense of sight, smell, or hearing either participated in or witnessed the tormented deaths of the Jews of Jedwabne.”

Poland suffered horribly in World War II, and the Poles have innumerable stories of profound humanity, heroism, and incredible endurance under Nazi oppression, stories that should rightly inspire national pride.  For instance, Witold Pilecki, a Polish Army officer, voluntarily made his way into Auschwitz to gather intelligence and to organize a resistance movement.  Jan Karski, a Polish resistance fighter, was smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942, and after seeing what was happening, he worked tirelessly to let the Allies know about the evils being visited on Jewish victims.

Yet as Jedwabne poignantly demonstrates, Polish hands were not entirely clean, and quite frankly, no nation could ever likely claim complete innocence in the face of anything like the Nazi occupation.  Under such conditions, some degree of complicity, however begrudging, is likely to be the price of survival.  For some people, a noble death can be preferable to being any part of evil, but especially for those responsible for vulnerable loved ones, the choice is seldom so simple and unequivocal.  Indeed, one has only to heed the poignant words of an Auschwitz survivor like Primo Levi to appreciate the fact that survival in the death camps compelled the moral compromise of dwelling in a “gray zone” where one had to look away and remain silent about the inhumanity foisted on victims.  Poland’s story is a fully human one—a story of loss, heroism, humanity, and inhumanity.

The Polish legislation championed by the party of Law and Justice isn’t truly about a sensible shield against shameless slander.  The law is meant to prop up a mythical image of Polish innocence and glory, where the moral lines between maggots and angels are clear and absolute: Over here are the pure saints, and over there are the abject sinners.  Ironically, this illusion tends to have a special power where national pride and shame are concerned.  It is one thing to confess my own flaws and misdeeds, and quite another to implicate my people by drawing attention to such things, whether they be things of the past or something right here before my eyes.  The powerful yearning to see one’s country as all-good is both childish and completely understandable.

The Polish lie that is this law at heart is a variation on an urge we see all around us in everyday America.  We rush to deem all sorts of things and people sacred in the sense of admitting of no criticism or dissent.  Flags, servicemen, law enforcement officers, clergy, and other souls are revered in ways that mythologize them, effectively denying their humanity in a foolish rush for some version of inhuman purity.  This is folly and worse because by nature, the human condition is imperfection.  At our very best and most beautiful, we have much to be proud about, but we should also keep in mind that Lucifer was undone by pride, the deadliest of the seven deadly sins.

We do ourselves no favors with make-believe tales that lionize us as nothing but heroes, whether we are Poles or Americans.

One Year Retrospective on the State of the Union

This week the Avon Hills Salon reflect upon Donald Trump’s first State of the Union Address on January 30, 2018.

The Gift of Trump
Anthony Cunningham

Plato’s Republic Manuscript

Years ago, I had a hard time getting students to take Plato’s qualms about democracy seriously.  In his Republic, Plato describes the disintegration of an ideal state, and a democracy is but one step removed from tyranny, the worst form of government.  His democracy comes about when the masses grow disenchanted with the oligarchs who command all the wealth and power.  These forgotten people wrest power from the establishment, and eventually, all hell breaks loose because the democratic man does whatever he pleases, thereby necessitating the rise of a powerful tyrant to save society by quelling the resulting disorder.

Try as I did to give life to Plato’s worries, my students could no more imagine serious threats from a democracy than they could imagine being attacked by unicorns.  Their faith in democracies was an understandable result of their lived experience and what they knew of American history.  They acknowledged imperfections in America’s democracy, but they pointed to what they saw as constant progress toward a better America.  After all, once upon a time, slavery was legal, Jim Crow ruled, women couldn’t vote, and people couldn’t come out of the closet.  These things never should have happened in the first place, but at least our democratic values of liberty and equality prevailed in the end.  And once won, these moral victories were permanent.  Americans could be confident that in time, other evils would be eradicated.  Justice would prevail, and we would all share in the bounty of America, the unparalleled land of opportunity.

And then came Trump.  Of course, he is a variation on Plato’s tale.  He is an oligarch, not some poor fellow leading the huddled masses against the 1%.  But he might as well be one of the downtrodden because he tapped into a powerful wellspring of anger, fear, and dispossession.  Trump capitalized on the sense of loss, worry, and resentment amongst Americans who felt like they no longer mattered.  His talk of arrogant elites, violent illegals, and globalists who cared less about America struck a chord, and Trump used the vitriol to full advantage.  True, he said bombastic things, boasted at every turn, made wild promises, and displayed vulgar sensibilities that would have eliminated a conventional candidate, but all was forgiven or overlooked because he was their guy, the ferocious fighter who was willing to throw political correctness to the wind to fight honestly on their behalf.  Evangelicals could hardly avoid the conclusion that Trump was a sinner, a profane man who talked about grabbing women “by the pussy,” but perhaps this was all part of God’s plan.  God so loved them that He sent them the unlikeliest hero.  Maybe God had a sense of humor.  All that mattered was that Trump would deliver them from evil, just as he would deliver all the manual laborers struggling to make a go of it in a different world.  He would drain the swamp and give them so much winning that they might just grow tired of winning.  Everything would be better with Trump.  Everything.

One year into the Trump presidency, he has given America a gift, though not the kind he promised.  He has destroyed the illusion that democracy is any magic pill to cure all social ills.  The progress wrought in American history through the efforts and sacrifices of people trying to make good on the ideals of liberty and equality can be rolled back, and if we doubted this before, Trump is proof in the flesh.  The thought that moral progress mirrors the progress of science—after all, once we see into the inner workings of the natural world, we seldom abandon such knowledge—is comforting, but Trump exposes it as a fantasy, and a pernicious one if it lulls us into complacency.  Democracy at its best is a fragile thing.  The ills of yesteryear can be rejuvenated, and they can be ushered in by people who think they are making America great again.  Bigotry can be exalted, precious freedoms can be rolled back, and knowledge can be replaced with convenient lies.  Trump did not invent the cracks and fissures in our fragile democracy; he capitalized on them, and in the process, he did us the favor of making us face the fact that the best things about America are never settled once and for all.  Donald Trump might just help make America great, though not the way he thinks.

Sins of Omission
Nick Hayes

Dante would have condemned President Trump for the sin of omission, a capital sin. In his State of the Union speech, Trump omitted several things we have come to know about him during his first year in the White House.

President Trump at the 2018 State of the Union Address

For example, Trump really likes Forbes magazine.  Based on comments by his erstwhile paramour, Stormy Daniels, Trump doesn’t actually read Forbes but finds it handy for other things.

It was useful, for instance, in the games Trump has been playing with Congress. It had mandated that the Trump administration produce a list of the elite oligarchs in Russia with close ties to the Kremlin and Putin. Congress’s purpose for such a list was to identify and impose sanctions on Putin’s cronies. The Treasury Department complied by cribbing a list of 96 names from a list published by Forbes of the 200 richest businessmen in Russia. Why would Trump prefer to plagiarize from a popular magazine rather than turn to the CIA for the information?  His motive might have been to turn the arguments for imposing sanctions into a joke, his staff, not unlike many a college student, did not think its plagiarism would be caught, or he really does like Forbes magazine. All three explanations could be true and are not mutually exclusive.

In any case, they are part of a pattern that explains the most obvious omission in Trump’s speech.  He made one reference to Russia.  Only one.  Conspicuously absent was any reference to the big story of Trump’s first year in office, the Russian meddling into the 2016 election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign.  His silence on the Russian controversy revealed that he has no intention of providing an explanation to the American public and every intention of sidetracking, derailing and undermining Congress’s investigation.

In the meantime, Trump’s silence serves Putin well.  His friend in the White House slow walks the call in Congress for sanctions against Russian.  There was neither a tweet nor a comment from the White House last week when Russian police brutally assaulted a demonstration by the only feasible opposition movement in Russia. Putin’s kangaroo courts have disqualified Aleksei Navalnyi, the last remaining political challenge to the Putin regime.

The Slothful – Salvadore Dali

Dante put those who committed the sin of omission together in hell with those guilty of the sin of sloth.  Both, Dante tells us, saw evil and did nothing to interfere or stop it. What might he have to say about the Trump or the Republican Congress?

 

 

 

Christianity Keeps Losing
Noreen Herzfeld

On the morning after the election of Democrat Doug Jones and the defeat of Republican (and accused harasser of teenage girls ) Roy Moore for the Senate seat in Alabama, the editor of Christianity Today noted that, given the vociferous evangelical support for Moore,  the Christian faith was that election’s real loser.  “When it comes to either matters of life and death or personal commitments of the human heart, no one will believe a word we say, perhaps for a generation. Christianity’s integrity is severely tarnished.”

Has the situation improved in the intervening three months?  Evangelicals would be wise to heed the old adage “If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging.”  Recent responses to a variety of scandals and to Trump’s own words in the State of the Union Address show evangelical leaders still frantically plying their shovels.

In response to the allegation that porn star Stormy Daniels was paid $130,000 to remain silent about an affair she had with Donald Trump in 2006, shortly after the birth of his son Barron, Tony Perkins, leader of the Family Research Council said in an interview with POLITICO, ““We kind of gave him—‘All right, you get a mulligan. You get a do-over here,’” This and similar statements made by others mark a remarkable sea change in evangelical attitudes toward character in office.  According to PRRI, in 2011 only 30 percent of white evangelicals agreed, “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” By late 2016, when Donald Trump was running for president, that number rose sharply to 72 percent.

Perhaps this reflects a new inclination toward forgiveness on the part of evangelicals.  Sadly, this spirit of forgiveness does not extend to everyone who occupied the Oval Office.  Perkins went on to say evangelicals “were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists. And I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully.”  When reminded that Christians should turn the other cheek, he replied, “Look, Christianity is not all about being a welcome mat which people can just stomp their feet on.”  Perkins language reflects that of “muscular Christianity,” a movement that has been part of evangelicalism from the beginning, which sees machismo and stereotypical male behavior as a necessary counterbalance to the feminization of religion.

Evangelical comments on Trump’s immigration stand take a similar tone.  On January 25 Jerry Falwell Jr. tweeted:

I find these words, and the actions they seem to be inspiring, hard to reconcile with the words of Jesus, who not only called on his followers to “turn the other cheek” but also said they would be blessed “because I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35).  A recent report that ICE officials were dumping water put in the desert by volunteers for thirsty refugees makes one wonder what part of Jesus’ words the current administration does not understand.

The editor of Christianity Today ended with the following observation. “What events of the last year and a half have shown once again is that when Christians immerse themselves in politics as Christians, for what they determine are Christian causes, touting their version of biblical morality in the public square—they will sooner or later (and often sooner) begin to compromise the very principles they champion and do so to such a degree that it blemishes the very faith they are most anxious to promote.”  He questions whether the religious right is really about religion or merely about politics.

Evangelicals who prize political power over love of neighbor, machismo over character, would be wise to recall that Jesus’ response to a tempter who offered him bread, fame, and political power (Mt 4:1-11) was, “Get away from me, Satan!”

Riding the Wave
Louis Johnston

President Trump hails his economic policy achievements at every opportunity. For example, here is a recent tweet:

No, Mr. President, our economy is not better than it has been in many decades. Instead, we’ve clawed our way back from the worst economic downturn since the 1930s and you were fortunate to take the reins at just the right time.

Let’s take a look at the economy’s vital signs since President Obama ook office in January 2009. Start with real GDP, the total output of the US economy adjusted for inflation:

GDP for 2017 is the last point on the far right of the graph. If 2017 had seen performance “better than it has been in many decades,” that point should be significantly higher and we should see a sharp break in the trend since 2009.  Sorry, Mr. President, it’s just not there.

Inflation is the next vital sign:

Again, there doesn’t seem to be any significant change in 2017 except that inflation is lower. However, the president doesn’t have much to do with this number; rather, it’s primarily driven by Federal Reserve policy. Unfortunately, the president did not reappoint Janet Yellen, the Fed chair who guided this policy.

Finally, the president touts record low unemployment rates. Let’s take a look:

Today’s low unemployment is the product of an eight-year trend of falling unemployment rates and steady job growth. The same is true of African-American unemployment, another bragging point for the president:

The economic state of our union is good, but not because of President Trump’s leadership. The true test will come when his policies kick in and he can no longer ride the wave created by his predecessors.

Nixon Went There
Derek Larson

EPA Documerica Project, 1972

Two critical issues our nation faces went unmentioned in President Trump’s first State of the Union Address: the ongoing Russia investigation and global climate change. His ignoring the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election is unsurprising. After all, President Nixon did say in his 1974 address “One year of Watergate is enough,” and eight months later he resigned in disgrace. But in that same address Nixon also highlighted the fact that “…for the first time ever, we have organized a massive national effort to protect the environment.” Faced with the biggest environmental challenge in the history of our species, Donald Trump had nothing to offer about climate change at all in his highest profile speech since his election.

Sadly, the State of the Union was riddled with the same nonsense Trump often spouts about “clean coal,” “floods, fires, and storms” that if not already made worse by our changing climate will be so in the future, and references to an imaginary “war on American energy.”

Taken in the context of the actual war on environmental regulation led by  EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and the president’s glaringly misinformed comments to the press confusing weather and climate in recent weeks, this is perhaps what we should have expected. But it is far from what we need if we are to prevent the worst of our scientists’ predictions from coming true.

Days before Trump’s speech, William Ruckelshaus, the Nixon appointee who led the formation of the EPA 1970 and served as its administrator again under Ronald Reagan, criticized Trump’s inaction on climate change as “a threat to the country… If you don’t step up and take care of real problems, and don’t do anything about it, lives will be sacrificed.” It may not be surprising the president spent eighty minutes speaking to 45 million Americans on television without once mentioning climate change. But he should have. Richard Nixon would have, and it seems fair to expect Trump to at least live up to the standard he set.

Nixon at 1974 State of the Union Address “For the first time ever, we have organized a massive national effort to protect the environment. Our air is getting cleaner, our water is getting purer, and our agriculture, which was depressed, is prospering. “(WHPO-E2145-15A, richardnixonlibrary.tumblr.com)

Louis Johnston on “Immigration in Historical Perspective”

Over the past 75 years, the annual number of immigrants into the United States grew along with the percentage of the population born outside the country. The changes wrought by these trends are visible throughout the country, from the faces of the children in our schools to the religious institutions in our towns, to the items in our grocery stores. Policy debates over immigration restrictions, refugee costs, and border walls rage at the national, state, and local levels.

Rarely do these discussions place the issues at hand into a broader, historical context. In this post, I will take a few moments to introduce you to some key trends in American history that relate to immigration and to describe some of the scholarly research regarding the long-run effects of immigration on the US economy. 

Some basic data 

Let’s start with data on immigration as a percentage of the population for the US from 1820 to 2010:

Graph 1

Source: Abramitzky, Ran and Leah Platt Boustan. “Immigration in American Economic History.” NBER Working Paper No. 21882, January 2016.

The picture shows that the number of people immigrating to the US reached a peak in the early 1850s, when measured as a percent of the American population, with similar spikes in the 1880s and 1900s. Relatively open borders in the 19th and early 20th centuries led to immigration levels that far exceeded current levels as a percentage of the population. (The 1986 immigration reforms created the 1990 spike.)

Next, take a look at how these data played out in terms of the percentage of the population born abroad:

graph

Source: Abramitzky, Ran and Leah Platt Boustan. “Immigration in American Economic History.” NBER Working Paper No. 21882, January 2016.

The foreign-born proportion of the population fluctuated around 14 percent from 1860 to 1910, steadily declined until 1970, and converged back towards 14 percent today.

These two pictures tell an important story: rather than thinking of today as anomalous (i.e. why are there so many immigrants today?) we should consider the fact that the years 1940 to 1990 were atypical in American history. That is, an America with relatively low levels of immigration and a relatively small percentage of the population born abroad is the outlier in American history, not what is going on today.

This brings us to a third piece of historical information, the geographic distribution of the foreign-born population:

Graph 2

Source: Abramitzky, Ran and Leah Platt Boustan. “Immigration in American Economic History.” NBER Working Paper No. 21882, January 2016.

European immigration dominated the nineteenth century. The Immigration Act of 1924 effectively closed the door to new arrivals for forty years and enforced this pattern. In particular, the 1924 act both reduced immigration levels and created a quota system based on the proportion of the population that was born abroad in 1890. This scheme favored immigrants from Europe, generally, and western Europe, in particular.

This began to change with the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. With this Act, Congress removed the quota system based on geography and replaced it with guidelines that promoted family unification. The result was a surge in immigration from Latin American and Asia.

Here is where the past differs from the present. Until the 1970s, European-born immigrants predominated, but since then the face of immigration has changed from white Europeans to people of color from Asia and Latin America.

Long-run effects of immigration on the US Economy

The data we’ve just examined describe the flow of immigrants into the United States. What were the effects of these waves of immigration on the American economy? In a series of studies, David Card of the University of California at Berkeley (along with a number or co-authors) tackled two of the key questions that arise in most debates regarding immigration:

  • Immigration does not depress the wages of native-born workers to any significant extent (2012 paper).
  • Immigration is not a driving force in creating income inequality (2009 paper).

Card’s work focuses on recent immigration, but economic historians have begun systematically addressing a bigger question: what were the long-run effects on the US economy of the big waves of immigration in the past?

In “Migrants and the Making of America: The Short- and Long-Run Effects of Immigration during the Age of Mass Migration,” economists Sandra Sequeira, Nathan Nunn, and Nancy Qian matched up US counties with low shares of immigrants in 1880 with similar counties in 1880 that had high immigrant percentages. For example, in Minnesota they matched up Cass County (17% foreign born) with Douglas County (33% foreign born.) They then traced economic development using a variety of factors over the next 100 years.

The authors report that, “Taken as a whole, our estimates provide evidence consistent with an historical narrative that is commonly told of how immigration facilitated economic growth. The less skilled immigrants provided the labor force necessary for industrial development. A smaller number of immigrants brought with them knowledge, skills, and know-how that were beneficial for industry and increased productivity in agriculture. Thus, by providing a sizeable workforce and a (smaller) number of skilled workers, immigration led to early industrial development and long-run prosperity, which continues to persist until today (p. 44).”

Conclusions: past and present

Do these findings apply to today and the years to come? For instance, the US economy no longer rests on a base of agriculture and industry but produces most of its GDP in the form of services; can we draw lessons about the a service economy from an industrial economy’s experience?

Yes, I believe we can apply this study to today’s debates. Immigrants today, just as in the past, bring skills that are valuable to our economy. These include both physical skills (e.g. immigrants working in agriculture or in food processing) and knowledge (e.g. immigrants employed in high-tech industries.) This benefits the American economy today in ways similar to immigrants setting up their own farms and working in factories a century ago. Further, just as over the past one hundred years, the children of these new Americans will gain the knowledge and skills that will drive our economy for the next century.

The economy is not a static phenomenon, with fixed jobs and industries requiring a stable and unchanging range of skills and technologies. It is a dynamic, ever-changing process with jobs morphing and new industries appearing over time. Immigrants are not the same as they were 100 years ago, but neither is our economy. The new immigrants, like the old, will contribute positively to the evolving economic order of the next 100 years.

Derek Larson on “Moving Toward Climate Resilience”

As south Texas begins the recovery process in the wake of hurricane Harvey and Irma bears down on south Florida, good reporters have been careful not to claim these storms are the result of anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change. That of course is true: human-driven climate disruption cannot be said to have caused these or any other specific extreme weather events. But it almost certainly has increased their severity; in the case of tropical storms directly as a product of higher ocean surface temperatures lending more energy  to developing storm systems. A multi-decade study published last year in Nature Geoscience found an increase in storm frequency of 2-3 times the baseline rate and increases in average storm intensity of 12-15% across a wide region of the Pacific, giving us some idea of how much worse tropical storms have become within our lifetimes. Neither of those figures may seem that impressive unless you have experienced a Category 3 or 4 hurricane directly, then imagine such events coming more often and with even greater force.

Harvey from space (Image: Colorado State University)

For decades climate scientists warned that we were running out of time to prevent serious disruption of the global climate system, and today the consensus is that our time has expired. We can no longer speak hopefully of preventing climate change, but instead must speak of mitigating its effects and adapting to a new baseline climate. Mitigation refers to efforts to reduce emissions and ideally limit the scope of future warming. Dramatic reductions in fossil fuel consumption, strict controls over greenhouse-gas emissions, and widespread efforts to sequester carbon outside the atmosphere and oceans will be required to prevent catastrophic climate disruptions a century from now. But what of the shorter term, which in the geosciences might mean a generation or two?

Ultimately adaptation to a changed climate will be required because we cannot easily reverse the consequences of actions taken over the last 150+ years as ancient fossil carbon was liberated into the atmosphere. We have, as some climate scientists like to say, “baked climate change into the cake.” At this point some level of overall warming is guaranteed, and indeed we are witnessing its effects already in the form of rising average temperatures on every continent, rising surface temperatures in the world’s oceans, and other signals that a “new normal” is developing around us. Like a massive ocean liner steaming straight ahead, simply turning off the engines can only slow, but not stop, this forward momentum in the short or medium term. We now need to exhibit the critical human trait of adaptation: we must plan for, prepare for, and accept the reality that climate in which our common future plays out will not be like that of our past.

Global fossil carbon emissions, 1800-2000 (Graph: Wikimedia Commons)

The key to climate adaptation is resilience. Both scientists and planners speak of “climate resilience” when asked what we must do to adapt to climate change. This quality of resilience refers to the ability of a society to survive disruption and manage change. It could be local; a coastal city like Houston could intentionally plan to become more resilient to hurricanes, for example by improving infrastructure and limiting new development in flood-prone areas. It could be national; a government initiative could fund both research on and implementation of resilience efforts on a broad scale, from coastal erosion controls to disaster preparedness. It could even be global; bodies like the UN Food and Agriculture Organization could work to secure the global food system against future climate disruption as insurance against famine. Unfortunately, far too little time and energy is actually going into such efforts, and with the ascendency of Trumpism in the United States progress has actually been reversed. Today the U.S., and as result the entire globe, is actually headed in the wrong direction, toward being less resilient, less prepared, and less adaptive to our changing climate. This will not only make things worse for current generations, but will make the challenges faced by future generations even more daunting, surely a moral failing that will not easily be forgiven by our grandchildren.

What we have seen in Houston and surrounding areas was not in itself a direct result of anthropogenic climate change. But human-induced global warming amplified the severity of the storm, and our failure to prepare adequately—to take the idea of resilience seriously –has made the consequences more severe as well. Like other metropolitan areas Houston is a product of urban sprawl that dramatically reduced the capacity of surrounding natural systems to absorb water from major rain events. The unchecked expansion of impervious surfaces like roads, parking lots, and roofs ensured that even more water rushed into overburdened drainage systems, streams, rivers, and soils than otherwise would have. Despite suffering three five-hundred-year storm events in three years, life in coastal Texas has continued under a business-as-usual approach in the era of climate change. This is not to single out Houston; no major US city is prepared for the new normal or has shifted either its resources or policies toward resilience to the degree necessary to do much beyond responding to short-term crises. Adaptation, for all of us, lies well into the future, and perhaps farther off today that it was six months ago.

Visit the Climate Resilience Toolkit

Extreme weather events like hurricane Harvey are part of our new normal. In North America we will see more hurricanes, more flooding, more precipitation records broken—and also more heat waves and droughts, because climate change does not yield similar effects across all geographical boundaries. All we can count on is disruption: more, bigger, stronger, and costlier weather events will take their toll even before the impacts of global sea level rise, new patterns of disease, severe agricultural declines, mass extinctions, loss of the polar ice caps, or other projected threats from climate change are realized. Indeed, responding to the localized weather impacts of climate change may be among the easiest challenges we face at this juncture. We have the capacity to adapt, to become more resilient, and to stop making the problem worse—but we need to muster the collective will make a move in the right direction. The clock has been running since the Industrial Revolution, and our opportunities to keep hitting the snooze button are clearly running out. The political leadership of the federal government has failed America and the world. The responsibility to address climate change and to develop a more resilient society now rests firmly with the states, municipalities, and individuals who are already suffering the consequences of our inaction.

Noreen Herzfeld on “Artificial Intelligence: An Existential Risk?”

Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk recently issued a warning regarding the future of artificial intelligence.   “AI is a fundamental existential risk for human civilization, and I don’t think people fully appreciate that.” Claiming access to cutting-edge AI technology, Musk called for proactive government regulation, noting that while such regulation is generally “irksome, . . . by the time we are reactive in AI regulation, it’s too late.”

Elon Musk

“I think people should be really concerned about it,” Musk said. “I keep sounding the alarm bell.”  Musk is not alone in sounding this alarm.  Several years ago physicist Stephen Hawking told the BBC: “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”

Really?  How might this happen?  According to Hawking, AI could “take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever-increasing rate. . .. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”

This concern has been a staple of science fiction for decades (see The Terminator or 2001).  However, those with a more intimate knowledge of AI disagree.  As MIT computer scientist Rodney Brooks has wryly pointed out, Musk and Hawking “don’t work in AI themselves. For those who do work in AI, we know how hard it is to get anything to actually work through product level.”  Virtual reality pioneer and Microsoft guru Jaron Lanier says anyone with experience of modern software should know not to worry about our future robotic overlords. “Just as some newborn race of superintelligent robots is about to consume all humanity, our dear old species will likely be saved by a Windows crash. The poor robots will linger pathetically, begging us to reboot them, even though they’ll know it would do no good.”

So does AI pose an existential risk?  Not for the reasons Hawking and Musk imagine.  We are unlikely to have “strong AI,” one that thinks in ways we humans think, ways as versatile as the human brain, for many, many years, if ever.  Our brains are vastly more complex than our present technology.  However, that doesn’t mean we are out of the woods.

“Weak AI,” programs that do only one thing and do that thing very well (think Deep Blue) are progressing by leaps and bounds and stand to undermine, or at least drastically change, our economy, our politics, and our personal lives.  In fact, as several studies published in just the last few weeks and months show, they are already doing so.

First, the economy.  A study from the National Bureau of Economic Research estimates that hundreds of thousands of jobs in the US have been taken over by automation since the 1990s.  Only one new job in the computer industry is created for every three jobs lost.  It is automation, far more than governmental regulations or off-shoring, that has decimated industrial sector employment. No matter what President Trump says, jobs in coal or manufacturing are not coming back.  Moreover, automated vehicles and Amazon are poised to take over transportation and retail.

Nor are blue-collar workers the only ones who should worry.  A 2013 University of Oxford report estimated that 47 percent of American jobs will likely be threatened by automation in the coming decades, including many white-collar jobs in the legal, health, and educational sectors. A report from the World Bank estimates that this proportion is even higher in developing countries.  AI has begun to shake the foundation of Western capitalism.

Obviously, this has ramifications for our political systems, and we have seen the first of these in the election of Donald Trump in the US and the vote for Brexit in the UK.  Beyond the restiveness of the working class, AI also played a role in our last election through the spread of fake news on social media by bots..  Artificial intelligence makes the development of fake evidence remarkably easy.  A recent study published in the journal Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications found that people could not identify whether or not a photo had been Photoshopped with any more accuracy than guessing.  Author Sophie Nightingale warns, “Photos are incredibly powerful. They influence how we see the world. They can even influence our memory of things. If we can’t tell the fake ones from the real ones, the fakes are going to be powerful, too.”

And it is not only Photoshop.  A recent article in Wired, entitled “AI Will Make Forging Anything Entirely Too Easy,” notes that video and audio are subject to similar falsification.  “In the future, realistic-looking and -sounding fakes will constantly confront people. Awash in audio, video, images, and documents, many real but some fake, people will struggle to know whom and what to trust.”  This has led to a new form of espionage, one the Russians pioneered in our last election.  While in the past espionage was about obtaining information, in the future it will also be about inserting information wherever one can.  AI has begun to shake the foundation of our trust in our media and our political campaigns.

Our private lives stand to be shaken as well.  Meet Roxxy.

A 2016 study from the University of Duisenberg-Essen found that 50% of men surveyed said they could imagine purchasing a sex robot within the next five years.  Sex robots are already selling well, particularly in Japan, where their use has already led to a decline in human-human sexual encounters.  While I will save an examination of the ramifications of this for a future post, here is one threat to humanity that might truly fall under the rubric of “existential.”

AI is unlikely to threaten human existence, as Hawking fears.  There will be no super-intelligent robot apocalypse.  But AI has already begun to upend our economy, our politics, and even our sex lives.  And this is only the beginning.  While no threat to “the human race,” as Hawking fears, AI does pose a threat to the structure of “human civilization” as we know it.  Perhaps Elon Musk got his terms right.

 

 

Nick Hayes on “All the President’s Clowns”

Conversational Russian speech draws upon a trove of folksy proverbs to make a point or simply add a bit of color commentary when conversation nods.  Long ago, in my first Russian language class, a talented teacher required us to memorize Russian proverbs. They added some levity to the drudgery of Russian grammar lessons day after day and allowed us to fake at a better command of the language than we actually possessed.  I forgot all of the proverbs except one. Over the past few weeks, as I have followed the news from the Trump-Putin Show at the G20 Summit to the fiasco of “I love it!” Donald Trump. Jr., this proverb flashed back to my memory. Like an old TV advertising jingle, the old Russian adage keeps ringing in my head.  It goes, “If you invite a pig to the table, he is sure to put his feet on it.”

I would not be the first to suggest that Trump’s behavior is beyond embarrassmentRe-visit the Christopher Steele Dossier and especially its description of Trump’s 2013 night at the Moscow Ritz-Carlton Hotel.  In this story, “golden showers” does not refer to Trump’s taste for gold-plated interior design fixtures. For more recent examples, check out his remarks to the Irish journalist, Caitriona Perry of RTE News. She was covering his telephone conversation from the White House to Leo Varadkav, the Prime Minister of Ireland. Trump gave the journalist a leering smile and motioned for her to come to his desk in the Oval Office. Speaking on the phone with the Irish Prime Minister and simultaneously eying Perry, Trump said, “She has a nice smile on her face . . . so I know she treats you well.”  On Trump’s Bastille Day visit to Paris, he was not in France very long but he did manage to embarrass the French First Lady, Madame Brigitte Macron. “You’re in such good shape,” Trump blurted.  “Beautiful.”  The video shows her awkwardly and hesitantly taking Trump’s offered hand. A few days later, Julie Bishop, the Foreign Minister of Australia commented on the American president’s inappropriate remark and added, “I wonder if she (Madame Macron) could say same of him.”

“I love it!” Donald, Jr. has now made it to the cover of TIME.  Google Trump, Jr.’s key liaison to Russia, Rob Goldstone.  Be sure to check the “images” link.   “I love it!” Donald, Jr. trusted this Fleet Street huckster to set up the now infamous meeting with the Russians at Trump Tower.  Goldstone dangled the promise of “krompromat,” or personal dirt, on Hilary Clinton to lure Donald, Jr., his brother-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort to a meeting with a sorry cast of characters from the B-team of Russian insiders.

Manafort came into the story with some highly suspect baggage.  He had received $17 million as a political consultant to the erstwhile Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych. He was Putin’s man in Kiev. The 2014 anti-government protestors toppled his government, came close to killing him, and sent him fleeing to Russia. His four years in office had displayed a level of corruption that would make a Russian oligarch blush.  Investigations have revealed that he paid $2 billion in bribes to election officials.  Was this part of Manafort’s advice? On the grounds of his private mansion outside of Kiev, Yanukovych created an artificial lake.  A replica of a Spanish galleon large enough to accommodate a restaurant inside floated around the lake to the amusement of Yanukovych and friends.  The restaurant’s chef, by the way, was also his mistress. Perhaps Manafort’s testimony for the Special Prosecutor will reveal that he had partied on Yanukovych’s galleon.

Another participant in the meeting, Soviet born and emigrant to the US, Ike Kaveladze allegedly laundered approximately $1.4 billion on behalf of Russian “friends.”   He had set up over 2000 bank accounts and 200 checking accounts for his Russian clients.

Did Putin deliberately choose a pack of clowns for this mission?  Perhaps.  Other attempts to compromise members of the Trump organization may have convinced Putin that there was no need to risk valuable “assets” in the temptation of Trump’s men.  Moreover, the exposure of such sub-prime assets would lend credibility to the Kremlin’s predictable denials of any connection to these novices.  They tarnish the FSB (the successor to the KGB) brand.

And so, the Russian story goes.   The Kremlin denies any involvement and characterizes the story as ludicrous.  Keep in mind that the story can be both ludicrous and true.  The Special Prosecutor, Robert Mueller’s investigation widens its reach and aims closer and closer to Trump and his men.  New leaks from inside the White House drip by drip come out every day.  Morning after morning, Trump tweets his innocence and anger in vain.

Meanwhile, Putin gloats.

Things have gone well for Putin this year.   He realized his strategic goals in Syria.  A stalemate in Ukraine amounts to a victory for Putin.  As I write, Trump is now tweeting accusations against the Ukrainian government in Kiev and claiming it interfered in the 2016 election on behalf of Hilary Clinton. Was this another one of Manafort’s ideas? Trump is still fighting the 2016 election. Putin is consolidating his victories from the G20 Summit to the Crimea and building his base for a landslide victory in the 2018 Russian presidential election. Putin is signaling to his base that at last the Kremlin has tamed an American president.

One sideshow from the media hype of the G20 Summit expressed Putin’s mood. A week before the G20 Summit, an Italian crop artist had used his tractor to create a portrait of Putin in an agricultural field.  A Russian television newscaster, Dmitry Kiselyov declared that the 452 by 328 foot image was visible from space. “The portrait even reflects the president’s light-blue eyes,” he added.  As you look at the photo, you can almost see a smile on Putin’s face.

Trump’s attention has now turned to examining his power to issue pardons to his family, his inner circle, and himself. His staff is hiring lawyers, “Character is destiny,” Heraclitus wrote.  We know where this story is going. “If you invite a . . . .”

Jim Read on “Wind-powered Log Cabins and Democratic Hope”

When people ask me what I’m doing this summer I reply, “I’m writing a book about Abraham Lincoln, and trying to remove the Creeping Charlie from my yard.” My next door neighbor replied, “The Lincoln book will be easier.”

However, the most common response is, “What can you possibly say about Lincoln that hasn’t already been said?” It is frequently asserted that more books have been written about Lincoln than about any historical figure except Jesus.

I am tempted to reply, “But no one has ever written a book about Abraham Lincoln’s support for wind power.” That is not what my book is about, but someone could write at least an article on the subject. One of Lincoln’s intriguing side projects was a series of public lectures in 1858 on the history of discoveries and inventions. (He also ran for U.S. Senate that year and participated in the famous Lincoln-Douglas Debates. I think he needed a break from politics.)

At the close of his First Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions, Lincoln speculated about areas in which future inventors might profitably try their hand. “Of all the forces of nature, I should think the wind contains the largest amount of motive power – that is, power to move things…As yet, no very successful mode of controlling, and directing the wind, has been discovered…The wind is an untamed, and unharnessed force; and quite possibly one of the greatest discoveries hereafter to be made, will be the taming, and harnessing of the wind.”

Wind-powered log cabins, anyone?

But the actual theme of my book is Lincoln’s defense of majority rule; and in particular, how Lincoln hoped to build an enduring national antislavery majority that would abolish slavery peacefully, democratically, gradually, and constitutionally. This was central to his life and thought in a way that wind energy was not. Yet despite the mountains of books and articles written on Lincoln, I have yet to find one specifically devoted to his defense of majority rule.

It is essential here to explain the context. The slave states of the lower South – South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas – seceded from the Union before Lincoln even took office as president on March 4, 1861. So no one could claim at that point that Lincoln had committed any despotic act justifying dissolution of the Union. It was Lincoln’s election itself that those states regarded as just cause for secession.

Even though Lincoln had been elected freely and fairly according to the constitutional rules, the seceding states claimed that Lincoln was an inherently illegitimate president because of his stance on slavery, and because he had not received a single electoral vote from a slave state. If the South’s favored candidate, John Breckinridge, had won the election, the slave states would have remained in the Union.

They seceded, in short, because they did not like the results of a free election. They feared that Lincoln’s (and the Republican party’s) plan of abolishing slavery gradually through a long, slow, majority-supported territorial squeeze stood a realistic chance of success, and they did not want to give him the opportunity to begin.

In his First Inaugural Address (which came before Fort Sumter, when he still hoped for a peaceful resolution of the crisis), Lincoln argued that for members of a powerful, well-armed minority to resort to violence because they do not like the results of a free election threatens democracy at its core. “A majority, held in restraint by constitutional checks, and limitations, and always changing easily, with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people…Unanimity is impossible; the rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy, or despotism in some form, is all that is left.”

Lincoln did not claim that the majority was always wise or just. But in every form of government the final power of decision, the right of sovereignty, had to be placed somewhere. In a democracy, that final power, in his view, had to lie with a deliberate, constitutionally-checked majority – not with a wealthy, powerful slave-owning minority. A deliberate, constitutionally-checked majority was “the only true sovereign of a free people.”

Lincoln hoped to use his election victory as a first step toward building a committed, enduring national majority that would first halt the expansion of slavery to new territories, then eventually abolish it gradually and peacefully, with compensation paid to owners.

That is not of course how it happened. Secession forced Lincoln to choose between going to war, or acquiescing in the creation of a powerful new nation on its borders dedicated to perpetuating the institution of slavery, both on American soil and internationally. He chose war. In the course of that horrific war, slavery was abolished by military force, not by peaceful democratic means.

I suspect this is the reason Lincoln’s defense of majority rule has received so little attention: events took a different course, and appeared to render his peaceful democratic hopes irrelevant. Many people argue that a peaceful end to slavery was impossible in the United States.

They may be right. But I still believe it is worth reconstructing the democratic road not taken. Lincoln had as much reason as anyone to be frustrated with democracy. Yet he believed that democracy, operating through the institution of majority rule, was capable of peacefully resolving even the most difficult problems – like abolishing slavery. In our own age of deeply dysfunctional democracy, I find solace in Lincoln’s unshaken democratic faith.

These are my thoughts this summer, as I creep along, weeding my yard, and listening to the rustle of Minnesota’s unharnessed summer breeze.