21 November 2018

Ocasio-Cortez as the Right's New Bogeywoman

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. At the tender age of 29 she has become a favorite target of the right. She's got everything they love in a target: a beautiful, energizing young woman of color is the exact opposite of the old, white congressmen like Mitch McConnell who they prefer.

With the recent loss of Mia Love in Utah, "Republicans will lose 43% of their women in the House, [dropping] from 23 to just 13. 90% of House Republicans will be white men," according to Dave Wasserman.  The Republican Congressional Black Caucus could meet in a phone booth: Mia Love was its sole member. Now that caucus can actually meet in an imaginary space.

Ocasio-Cortez represents everything the Republican Party is not. Exit polls tell us that race is a huge predictor of how one votes: 54% of whites vote Republican and 76% of non-whites vote Democrat. Age, too, is a huge predictor: two-thirds of voters under 30 vote Democrat and only 48% of voters over 65 do. Finally, gender is predictive: 51% of men vote Republican but only 40% of women do. A young minority woman, she is the embodiment of who Republicans cannot win and who this country is becoming.

And conservatives who have convinced themselves that Obama and Clinton were socialists are alarmed to encounter a candidate who actually calls herself socialist. For many conservatives, simply believing that science is real is enough for them to conclude that you are a socialist. I've seen little evidence that my conservative friends can distinguish between pushing for, say, a 3% higher marginal tax rate for inheritances over $3 million and shifting 20% of GDP from the private to public sector.

And in this willing ignorance of the difference between the socialism of a Fidel Castro or northern Europe, today's conservatives are unable to process who Ocasio-Cortez is. From what little I know about her, she has this huge advantage over my libertarian friends: she can point to highly successful communities like Norway, Denmark and Sweden that do what she is advocating; libertarians still only have examples from Ayn Rand's fiction.

This, though, is what is most comical about how alarmed conservatives are by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She is one of 435 House members. One of 535 congressional members. Her vote on policy represents less than 0.2% (not 2% but rather two-tenths of a percent) of Congress.

I was a big Hillary Clinton fan and while I'd have readily voted for Bernie Sanders rather than Trump, I don't get excited by politicians who distrust business as much as Republicans distrust government. (I think that both positions are not only naive but show one of the last, widespread kinds of acceptable bias in this country, groups who openly condemn bankers or government employees as if they were sub-human rather than people filling roles without which our modern world would collapse, and yes, I mean that literally.) Socialists* and libertarians strike me as generally smarter than the average person but generally more naive about how the world works. They're typically better at articulating concepts than pointing to any actual examples of what they're advocating.

All that to say that I would not naturally be a Ocasio-Cortez fan. But I'm becoming one for a host of reasons. One, she has shown such grace in the face of the right's paranoid and incessant attack on her. Two, she's too young to be president and if a person doesn't lean towards socialist or libertarian thought (or both) before the age of 35 they're probably either a really boring or really simple thinker. Three, the things she is fighting for are really important. As she put it in response to a Fox news alarmist piece about her and other new women of color in congress, "Oh no! They discovered our vast conspiracy to take care of children and save the planet."

I share this country with 325 million other people. I never expect to have a set of policies that perfectly capture what I believe. I will say, though, that for me it is such a no-brainer as to whether I'd rather live in Ocasio-Cortez's world where adults get free university than Trump's world where immigrant children get free cages. And that may be the final reason the right is so alarmed by her: she is as appealing as their champion is appalling.

* In this paragraph I refer to socialists are people who distrust bankers. Those I distrust and consider naive. At their worst, they give you a society like Cuba's. Socialist is also used to refer to folks who see bankers and business as vital but merely think that healthcare and education should be available to all. Those I trust. At best they give you a society like Norway or the Netherlands.

20 November 2018

Women, Hitler and the Inevitability of Progres

Progress is inevitable.

As someone who loves history I've come to believe that certain things are inevitable. Once the telegraph had been developed, someone would eventually find a way to push voices down the wires and allow conversation. Alexander Graham Bell was the first to file a patent for a telephone and then, hours later, Elisha Gray tried to file a patent for a telephone.  Had neither Bell nor Gray been born, we would still have had a telephone. It was inevitable.

Hitler was not inevitable. No one had to step into power in Europe and derail progress, tipping the world into so much madness and evil. Yet even Hitler illustrates the inevitability of progress.

Hitler killed 6 million Jews. It was one of the greatest horrors of the last century, this systematic killing of a people. But he made it even worse. By far. Hitler - in league with Mussolini and Hirohito - started a war of conquest that killed 50 - perhaps s many as 80 - million people. It was the mass manufacture of death.

Hitler's beliefs have still not completely died. Neo-Nazis are not done killing people, even if it never approaches a fraction of the scale of Hitler's madness.

Hitler was awful, not inevitable, and left behind a trail of destruction.

The Allies response to him? Accelerated progress. Technological and Social.

New products that came out of World War 2 include penicillin, the programmable computer, a jet engine, and radar.

Less obviously, production and quality methods came out of this that helped to raise productivity during the 1940s and probably for the rest of the century. Three of the business thinkers who most influenced my understanding of business and were heard and read by millions - Peter Drucker, Russell Ackoff, and W. Edwards Deming - all were involved in the war effort and carried lessons from that time into work with clients into the 21st century.

Hitler did not just accelerate progress in technology and production processes. He actually accelerated social progress.

In the US, men went off to war and women were brought into workplaces. (Management expected productivity to drop when this happened. Instead it rose. They investigated to understand why and what they discovered was .... when assigned to work on a new machine, women asked questions about how it worked. That was it. That was the difference that accounted for the productivity gain.)

To win the war, the US was eager to have as many able-bodied men as they could. This included minorities and this effort at integration did not end with the war. WWII ended in the Fall of 1945 and by the Spring of 1947, Jackie Robinson began playing major league baseball.

Hitler probably accelerated the development of medical care, aviation, computing, racial integration and women gaining more rights. He arguably caused more pain than anyone in the last century and yet .... even all that seemed to give progress more of a boost. (Let me be clear that we could have done this anyways and far less painfully. Probably not as quickly, though. Once we learn to follow the lead of intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, motivation progress will move along at a good clip and not be in reaction to crisis.)

Hillary Clinton came so very close to becoming our first woman president, losing a marathon race by half a second. Now, in the first election after her loss, there have been a record number of women elected to congress. (And still counting. It looks like the 116th Congress will rather fittingly have 116 women. One can only hope that their progress towards representing half of the 435 won't take another 200 years.) Many of these women were motivated by Trump's election and Clinton's loss. It is distinctly possible that the election of a man who bragged about just grabbing pussy because he was a star will actually lead to more women in power than we might have otherwise had.

Progress has a direction. More people have more freedom to live a life of their own choosing. They get access to inventions technological and social. We invent cool things like church and state, cars and planes. That makes life better. Then we figure out how to let more people use these cool things. Religious freedom and democracy, Ford's factory line and commercial air eventually give the everyday person access to these great inventions that once were tools reserved for the elites. Progress continues to create more  possibilities and then offer those to more people.

I'm more appalled at Trump than most people I know. I think he already has created so much unnecessary grief and could be responsible for far more. That said, if even Hitler could not derail progress, there is no way that a man as simple-minded and emotionally needy as Don is going to. All these women winning elections is just the first good thing to come out of his presidency.

12 November 2018

What if the Senate is Obsolete?

As economic power and population shifted from rural farms to industrializing cities in decades around 1900, Britain and Germany changed how their parliaments were defined. US legislature hasn't made that shift in representation and probably should. This is going to be contentious.

As Britain pioneered the industrial revolution, Manchester's population exploded. A center for industrialization, Manchester grew to become the UK's third largest city (after London and Glasgow) by 1901. Between 1700 and 1800 it grew from fewer than 10,000 to about 90,000.  Manchester's population doubled between 1801 and 1820 and then doubled again by 1850.

Yet when it began its growth, Parliamentary representation was granted to districts. Manchester did not even elect its own Members of Parliament (MPs) in the early 19th century. It was just part of the Lancashire district.

Meanwhile, in "rotten boroughs," a paltry few could elect two MPs. How few? In one borough, 7 voters got to elect 2 MPs. Dunwich had literally fallen into the sea, leaving just 32 voters clinging to land; they, too, got to elect 2 MPs. In a sense, this was representation by acreage.

The economy changed how population and power was distributed. Industrialization brought workers into cities like Manchester and left behind smaller populations in the little rural communities that - in part thanks to industrialization - needed fewer people to raise crops and tend livestock. While the population and economies of cities grew, their political representation had not.

This changed in the UK (the disparity between Dunwich and Manchester began to be addressed with legislation in 1832) and, later, in Germany, Austria and France through a series of parliamentary reforms starting in the early 1800s and continuing through the first world war. As the economy shifted from agriculture to industrial, as the important factor shifted from land to capital, these communities shifted political power to give voice to the members of this new economy.

The need for such a shift in the US is less dramatic. At least in the House. Divided into 435 districts by population (obviously a number that grows every decade), the US is not going to have anything as egregious as 7 people electing two representatives.

Nonetheless, the Senate is still structured around the notion that acreage deserves representation. Like the early forms of British parliament that found themselves antiquated by urbanization and industrialization, the US Senate gives disproportionate representation to owners of land rather than capital or knowledge. Two states, Wyoming and Vermont, have populations smaller than Washington DC. Those states have four senators and DC has none. 21 states with a population of 36 million get 42 senators; California with a population of 39 million gets 2 senators. In one part of the country, you are just one of 850,000 voices your senator must represent; in another, you are one of 19.7 million voices

California has helped to pioneer the information and entrepreneurial economies and that has made it successful in industries like aerospace, communications, silicon, software, biotech, and the internet. Of the 100 most valuable companies in the world earlier this year, the market cap of companies in California represented $4.2 trillion of the US's $14.1 trillion (and of the world's $21.2 trillion). California represents 12.4% of the American population and 30% of the value of the country's biggest companies. Like Manchester in the early 19th century, California's lead in creating jobs and wealth has not yet translated into commensurate representation.

In 1790, when the US was founded, 90% of workers were in agriculture. Acreage was a pretty good proxy for good representation at that time. Agriculture now employs fewer than 2% of American workers. Acreage is now a terrible approximation of how representation should be calculated. (And yes, I know that technically the Senate is a way to represent states not acreage but it does effectively do that. State representation does not follow people around as they move; states "govern" over a constant and stable area, not a constant and stable population. What this effectively means is that Senators represent acreage.)

As it now stands, the politics in the US is going to be disproportionately defined by the least populous and least affluent areas of the country because of how the Senate is structured. It's hard to imagine us ignoring that for too much longer or imagine that addressing this issue will ever be easy.

11 November 2018

The Lesson of World War One (That is too costly to learn twice)

Today is the 100th anniversary of the end of "the Great War." This war killed 15 to 20 million people but within a generation we had a second world war that killed 60 million. In between, the Great Depression caused so much economic misery that it gave power to communists and fascists throughout the world.

The decades after the first world war were a time of misery. The decades after the second world war were a time of peace and prosperity.

Between 1350 and 1950, there was at least one major military confrontation between European powers in every decade. What changed after 1950 is that we created international institutions.

There is a quip that nations either exchange goods or gunfire. Economic development and trade have been a boon to peace. The West also has institutions that link it together: NATO, the UN the IMF and the EU. These didn't really exist until after WWII and they do a great deal to explain why the time after the second world war was so starkly different from the time after first world war.

Just as the institutions of families, city councils, federal governments, corporations, churches and banks all deserve continual criticism and drive to improve them so that they adapt to changing realities and new possibilities, so do these post WWII institutions. They need improving. Without institutions we are like the other primates, though. We can't afford to neglect or discard them. And the West without these post-WWII institutions would be more like the world of Stalin, Franco, Mussolini, and Hitler than JFK and Reagan, Thatcher and Blair, Trudeau and Mulroney, de Gaulle and Chirac, and Kohl and Merkel.

The lesson of WWI is that without creating institutions that transcend nations we again slip into the the madness that goes by a variety of names (patriotism, nationalism, self-interest) and devolves into the worst kind of competition rather than raise us to the best kind of cooperation. It is a lesson too costly to learn twice.

06 November 2018

What is Certain in Today's Election

We live in a probabilistic, not deterministic world. The Democrats will probably win the House and the Republicans will probably hold the Senate but .... we don't know. Yet. Fivethirtyeight gives Republicans a 15% chance of keeping the House and the Democrats a 15% chance of winning the Senate.

Reality is choosing among possible paths as rapidly as it can but there are so many of them. We can simulate reality so much faster than reality can play out because reality does not simplify.

One of the things that we will learn is how unique is Trump. It is very normal for a Republican to win the presidency after two terms of a Democrat in the White House. In that sense, the 2016 election was boring and normal. But of course Trump is a bizarre character who seems to most of us to be hugely different than a typical Republican. If he really is, the backlash could be bigger than what is captured in current probabilities; if typical Republicans and swing voters think he is really no different than a normal Republican, there will likely be a swing towards Democrats but it won't be very dramatic; about enough to win the House but still be still be a minority in the Senate.

What is certain? 

Democrats could win by 6 points nationally (53 to 47) and still lose the House. Because of gerrymandering and the fact that individual voters in big cities have less influence even in House races, Republicans have about a 5 to 6 point starting advantage for Congress. That strikes me as the most remarkable thing about politics in this second decade in the 21st century.

Related, the counties that voted for Clinton represent two-thirds of GDP. It is the areas of the country that least understand how to create jobs and wealth that thought Trump's anti-trade, anti-immigrant, nationalist agenda sounded like a good idea.

As it now stands, our policy is being decided by minorities as counted by the number of voters and GDP. That's certain. And that is certainly weird.

What else is certain? The House will decide whether we learn what Mueller has learned about Trump. The House will decide whether Trump will - for the first time in his life - experience any negative consequences for any negative deeds. Voters today will decide whether we continue to have a Republican-led House that merely enables Trump or a Democratic-led House that checks his worst excesses. 

What is certain is that Trump will be more dangerous with a Republican-led House. I'm certain that I don't want two more years of a Congress that merely acquiesces to his every whim; I wish I could be certain we'll get that.

Finally, as I think about today's election, the words of Tiny Tim repeat in my head: God bless us everyone.