28 May 2018

Trump as Trickster

Lewis Hyde's Trickster Makes This World  is a brilliant look at how trickster gods from cultures on every continent seem to be a constant, the gods whose mischief and disdain for the systems that order daily life disrupt those systems. Sometimes the chaos they unleash is destructive, sometimes creative, and sometimes merely affirms the need to restore the status quo.

The tricksters Hyde cites include Krishna and Coyote, from two different Indian cultures; Monkey,  and Eshu from two different African cultures; Hermes from the Greeks and Loki from the Scandinavians. Hyde calls them boundary crossers whose disdain for norms both help to change norms and to define them.

Hyde writes that prophecy is not about prediction in the sense that it predicts that the stock market will fall in October. Rather, prophecy reveals truths that will still be true in the future.  This section of his book from 1998 is prophetic about Trump.
These threats on both sides, to the shameless person and to the world around him are, I think, what sometimes lead people to ask if the trickster isn't really a psychopath. Certainly there are parallels. Psychopaths lie, cheat, and steal. They are given to obscenity and, as one psychologist puts it, exhibit "a confusion of amorous and excretory functions." [Think pee tape.] They're not just antisocial, they're foolishly so (they "will commit thefts, forgery, adultery, fraud, and other deeds for astonishingly small stakes and under much greater risks of being discovered than will the ordinary scoundrel"). While they are often smart, they have a sort of "rudderless intelligence," responding to situations as they arise but unable to formulate any coherent, sustainable, long-term plan. They are masters of the empty gesture, and have a glib facility with language, stripping words of the glue that normally connects them to feeling and morality. Finally, they lack both remorse and shame for the harm and hurt that trail behind them. One way or another, almost everything that can be said about psychopaths can also be said about tricksters. [p. 158 of Hyde's Trickster Makes This World, 1998, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, NY.]

Why, if this definition of trickster so aptly describe him then, is Trump so popular?  That's like asking why are the trickster gods so compelling that they have shown up in so many cultures? Perhaps it is because tricksters like Trump mock what people reverence. You can't really hope that a trickster will abide by norms. He defies them. Hyde quotes another author, Rickets, who shows how trickster stories can be read as parodies of shamanism.
In shamanic initiation, for example, the spirits kill and resurrect the initiate, often placing something inside the resurrected body - a quartz crystal, for example - which the shaman can later call forth from his body during healing rituals. If someone in your group claims such powers, you might find wry humor in stories which have Coyote, when he needs advice, calling forth (with much grunting) his own excrement. ... Trickster's failure implies that shamanic pretensions are daydreams at best, fakery at worst. [p. 294 of Hyde's Trickster Makes This World.]

If experts are our modern shamans, then Trump is continuing with this tradition of mocking shamans in a hundred ways that are variants on his appointing Rick Perry as Energy Secretary; Rick Perry who - in a debate - could not even remember the name of the Energy Department he wanted to eliminate. Only a trickster would make a person who thought so little of an agency that they both wanted to eradicate it and couldn't remember its name as the leader of that agency. Trump thumbs his nose at the experts who pretend to understand and predict the systems - from weather systems that define our climate to the financial systems that create booms and busts or even the government agencies he is supposed to manage - that define our world. He thumbs his - well, whatever - by bragging about the size of his penis in a presidential debate. He's shameless and his supporters love him for this for at least a couple of reasons. If the experts deserve mocking rather than reverence then even the non-experts can feel superior - or at least equal - to those experts. And once the standards have been mocked by the trickster Trump - whether when he has sex with porn stars while his wife is home with a new baby or when he shares conspiracy theories with Alex Jones - there is no longer a credible basis for calling them deplorable.

That said, past generations paid a great price for the transition to something new. Trump may be the price we pay and if so, he may be a bargain by contrast.

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln became the 6 year-old Republican Party's first president. The new Republicans laid in place a set of policies that helped the country catch the wave of the industrial economy.  After the Great Depression, the modern Democratic Party - from FDR to Kennedy and Clinton - created a set of policies that helped the country to catch the wave of the information economy. Waves don't come out of calm seas and the chaos of the Civil War and the Great Depression and the second world war seemed - in retrospect - to mark a transition from an old to a new economy. During Lincoln's time we had a literal battle between Union soldiers and Confederates, two groups with very different ideas about whether we lived in a world contained by states or nations.  The transition ushered in with FDR's engagement in the second world war and Clinton's signing of NAFTA and WTO trade agreements was from national to international economic and political realities. Republicans made us bigger than states; modern Democrats made us bigger than a nation. Chaos in the form of bloody wars and assassinations marked these messy transitions into something new.

I think that we're now moving from an information to entrepreneurial economy and such a transition seems inevitably messy. It is unsurprising that a trickster has shown up at this time of transition. Tricksters are boundary crossers, creating and thriving on the chaos that marks transitions. Trump might just be the trickster who is disrupting the status quo enough to make it easier to create the next, new thing. We always pay a price for moving into the new; we still don't know the final tab for the Trump presidency but it could be one of the lowest we have ever paid, which seems to me just one more sign that we're making progress even if Trump - who as trickster belongs to earlier, more archaic worlds - is not.

27 May 2018

Monarchs (Butterflies, that is) and Millennials

I went on a business trip with my wife Friday. She calls them field trips. She teaches 2nd grade and Wednesday her 7 and 8 year olds reached the end of their unit on butterflies by releasing some they had watched transform from caterpillars into butterflies. Friday they went to the IMAX to watch a movie about monarchs.

It's cliche to express wonder at the transformation from caterpillar to butterfly but the wonder is deserved. If you saw the two creatures without any knowledge that they were related, you likely wouldn't even put them in the same category, much less realize they were two stages of the same life. There's more, though.

Every fourth generation is a super butterfly. For three generations the butterfly's life expectancy is about two to six weeks. This fourth generation, though, lives for six to eight moths. It's also bigger and able to fly from Canada into the heart of Mexico, thousands of miles. The transformation from caterpillar to butterfly is genetic code triggered each generation; the transformation from regular to super butterfly is genetic code only triggered every fourth generation.

Which made me wonder whether something similar is going on in our community.

If we define a generation as 25 years, four generations back takes us to those born about 1900. These people fought in World War 1 and then were the leaders during World War 2. Their inventions, speculations, investments and desires fueled the roaring 20s, tipped into the Great Depression, and then a hot war with fascists and then a cold war with communists. When they were born in 1900, the two most common jobs were farmer and household servants (families with fewer than 3 servants were considered lower-middle class); by the time they died in the 1960s through 1990s, men had walked on the moon, the internet was linking people across the world, and the discovery of DNA had evolved into genetic engineering.

The kids at Parkland so impressed me. Millennials and younger are aware, conscientious, and the best educated generation in history. They are informed by thousands of stories and have access to millions of lives through a media that includes TV, radio, podcasts, video, social media and every other permutation of the internet.

It is, of course, a whimsical idea, but what if those kids born about 2000 - who are 4 generations removed from the generation born about 1900 - are a super generation who will carry us farther than the generations before?

26 May 2018

Product Idea: the Fiercely Reciprocal Robot

Mirrors were a phenomenal invention for promoting self-awareness. Mirrors don't make us look great but because they inform us of how we do look, they do make us look better. We can use the image they send back to correct what we can.

Our social image is tougher to discern than our physical one. We can easily see our face in a mirror; it's tougher to see how we come across to different people in different situations. For that I think it'd be interesting to get kids a fiercely reciprocal robot.

One problem with understanding how we come across is that there are different lag times and different probabilities for feedback from people. One person might patiently take our stupid jokes or tendency to volunteer "honest" feedback about how fat they look in that outfit while another will immediately take offense and avoid us later. One will put up with something from us for a couple of months before deciding that it is too much and another will put up with it for life. We don't really know how we come across as social beings and particularly for the young this process of understanding who we are to others can be slow and difficult.

A potential solution to this is the fiercely reciprocal robot. Imagine a robot that a child aged 2 to 14 could interact with. This robot would reciprocate everything from being ignored to telling amusing jokes to giving compliments to insults, handshakes to punches. If the child looked away when the robot was telling a story, the robot would look away; if the child made appropriate noises - the Ooohs and the "oh no's!" to express amazement or alarm, the robot, too, would make such noises. If the child expressed encouragement rather than complaints, the robot would be encouraging rather than complaining.  If the child were happy being with the robot then one might safely assume that the average, typical peer would also be happy to be with the child; if the child were miserable with the robot, then one might safely assume that the average, typical peer would be miserable with the child. Whatever the robot made one feel would be a reflection of what the child made others feel.

Of course you would need a "model good form" mode that might inspire the child to new behaviors. It could not be all reciprocity. Sometimes instruction is needed.

The default mode would be reciprocity, though, and this would be a great teacher and predictor. As it turns out, the average person is fiercely reciprocal. If you are kind to strangers they're generally kind to you; if you are rude to them, they're generally rude to you. For the most part, who we are dictates who people are to us. The fiercely reciprocal robot would be unique mostly in the immediacy and the relentlessness of its feedback.

A Proposal for the Reasonable Republicans Who Still Walk Among Us

Under Trump, Republicans are not just pursuing bad policy but bad strategy. As they frantically pursue policies that veer further and further right, these neo-Republicans may be driving Democrats further left.

Hitler would have never risen to power without communists. Communists had real power in Europe (they'd seized control of Russia shortly before Hitler emerged as a political figure) and Hitler was able to use legitimate fear of communists to win support. The way he credibly framed himself to many Germans was that he wasn't an extremist; he was only taking extreme measures to protect Germany.

A similar thing could happen in the wake of Trump. McConnell and Ryan are frantically running around, dismantling every reasonable compromise they can find. They've created a tax cut that will drive annual deficits north of a trillion a year. (That alone would have - just a few years ago much less a few decades ago - dominated media coverage.) They've rolled back regulations requiring banks demonstrate the ability to suffer a downturn without igniting a recession. (Before banking regulations of consequence, from 1900 to 1933, the US was in a recession 48% of the time. Since then it has been in recession only 14% of the time.) They are slashing funding for healthcare, even for children. They're so frightened of immigrants that they are breaking up families and losing the children of people who cross the border. They've gone after free trade, protection of national parks, gutted healthcare for the poor and are making abortion, birth control and healthcare for new mothers difficult to get, following the lead of Texas where maternal mortality is 10X higher than it is in countries like Italy or Japan. Yes. You read that right. New mothers in Texas die at double the rate they did just a few years ago, and at 10X the rate of mothers in other countries. This after policies similar to those advocated by Trump Republicans were put in place.

Now let's imagine that none of that offends or disturbs you. That is, let's imagine that you are a Republican who still supports Trump. So why should my friends and relatives who are so proud of their party find this disturbing? Because everyone else does and one of the many consequences of this is that you've just given extremists on the left what is equivalent to what the communists gave Hitler: an obviously evil and dangerous foe who justifies extremist countermeasures.

You want to roll back reasonable banking regulations? This is not just stupid in its own right; it is stupid because it could give more power to the folks on the left who have never liked banks or stock markets. You don't just raise the risk of a bad recession; you raise the risk that you could lose what has created so much wealth in this country.

You can believe that your system doesn't owe anything to the poor but even if you aren't moved by compassion, you should be moved by greed. If a growing percentage of people see no benefit in the system you defend, they will vote for it to go away. In your greed to get the next 5% of after tax income you could easily lose 50%.

I think that it is true in politics that for every action there is a reaction. The day that Obama was sworn in the country rejoiced at the end of racism .... and the enrollment level at neo-Nazi and white supremacist sites was 10X its normal rate. This reactions to actions dynamic suggests that anyone thinking a move ahead will take care not to take radical actions that will provoke a radical reaction. As Republicans continue to defend a man as reprehensible as Donald Trump, their support among people who can't get the senior discount at Denny's has steadily dropped. The GOP is the party of old white guys and those guys (us guys) are steadily dying.  If the next election were held only among those 35 and younger, Republicans would fare about as well as the Whig Party and in a few decades the "next" election will be among those 35 and younger.

I'm an old guy. I should be yelling at the Bernie Sanders kids to get off my lawn. I should be the conservative voice in American politics. Given the excesses of the Republican Party, I'm instead a flaming liberal. I believe that our financial system is wonderful and getting rich is great; and that markets should be regulated and that crooks (think Bernie Madoff) are as likely to show up on Wall Street as the back streets of poor neighbors and the rest of us need to be protected from them by smart policing and good regulations that looks as skeptically at bankers in suits as teenagers in hoodies. I think that a city of two million, half of whom are immigrants and a city of two million, all of whom are native born, will have the same number of jobs and consumers and the idea that immigrants steal jobs is absurd. I think that the corporation is one of the great inventions of modern times, and that CEOs have too much unchecked power and that there should be more opportunities for employees to make as much or more than their CEOs, that the pay of CEOs ought not to be 350X that of their typical employee. I believe that for-profit pharmaceuticals and healthcare provider companies have made us healthier and that the profit-motives has driven innovation that steadily make us healthier in ways that just saving money by emphasizing low costs would not; and yet I also believe that healthcare should be a right. I believe that we do need troops ready to intervene around the world and yet I believe that this should be done sparingly and we need far, far more humility about imposing ourselves onto other people. I believe that a person who wants to treat a sperm and egg at the moment of conception no differently than a baby has that right but cannot impose such a belief onto other reasonable and decent people who think that this zygote that cannot be seen won't be anything equivalent to a person for months. I think that societies should do all they can to encourage two-parent households but that single-mothers and their children should be generously supported so that both feel appreciated and loved by the community and that kids of single parents have more opportunity. I believe only most people - not everyone - should own a gun and that no one - not even special people - should own weapons like nuclear bombs or automatic weapons specifically designed to kill dozens or millions of people.

None of this is controversial. Unless you're a Trump supporting Republican. And given that these Republicans have decided that reasonable compromise represents an abandonment of principles, they are running full tilt into a set of policies that future generation will find baffling and offensive. This alone is enough to criticize them for but there is more; their excesses could easily provoke excesses in the other direction.

So, friends and family who have historically voted Republican but consider yourself reasonable, I have a proposal. Stop voting for candidates who support Trump. Instead, vote for Democrats who are reasonable rather than ideological. Make sure that the blue wave - which may come in months or years - brings in candidates who are moderates like me rather than the flaming liberals you like to pretend we all are.

One last thing. If you feel like you have to vote Republican regardless of how extremist the policies have become, you are are not reasonable. You are an ideologue. Your first filter should be to vote only for reasonable, intelligent, competent and decent human beings; once you have your choice of two or more such candidates, then it's great to choose based on ideological preference. If instead you filter only by ideology and then between good and reasonable people when they're available, you are reasonable only as a last resort. That's not reasonable.

04 May 2018

Maybe There is No Lesson

Someone had shared this recently:

Rule 3
"There are no mistakes, only lessons."

As is my tendency, I nodded silently. It made sense. Then, because of my tendency to over-think things (or as I like to call it, "thinking"), I thought we may too readily believe in the power of lessons.
Lessons make it sound like there is something we can carry forward from one experience to the next. Maybe the most profound experiences of life are too unique to be understood by anything that happened before or of anything to follow. They are not lessons for life. They are life. And all we have to guide us through them is our heart. And maybe that's enough.

02 May 2018

"We will loan you our trillion dollar tax cut," investors tell government

Here is an interesting pair of numbers.

In the first quarter of 2018, US companies announced $242 billion in stock buybacks. At that pace it will hit nearly one trillion dollars for the year. 

In the first half of the year, the federal government will run a deficit of $600 billion. At that pace it will borrow roughly 1.2 trillion dollars for the year.

Put differently, corporations have a trillion more than they can spend this year and the federal government needs a trillion more than it has. 

It sounds like an onion headline: "We will loan you our tax cut," investors tell government.