Morality (yet again!)

I’ve taken a position in previous posts about how I think “morality” should not be used as the basis for laws, and after thinking about this a bit more I think some clarifying might be in order.

First, it might be useful to explore the concept of “morality.” Google’s dictionary defines morality as

“Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior; a particular system of values and principles of conduct, especially one held by a specified person or society.”

I don’t want to give impression that laws should be divorced from morality. I think it’s a given that we all have a sense of right and wrong. Even little babies develop a sense of fairness very early on, and fairness is a corollary to right and wrong. So of course development of laws must be firmly grounded in “right and wrong,” but when I think of “morality,” it’s more than just an innate sense of what’s right or wrong. In the Google definition above, the last part of that definition is pertinent; note that it says “especially one held by a specified person or society.” That means that it’s contextual; morality is defined (at least in part) by that person or society. If it’s contextual, then in a different context, a different “system of values and principles of conduct” would be in place. So it’s conceivable that two different people, groups or societies could hold the exact opposite views (or actions) to be moral. To say it differently the same action could be moral (or even “required”) for one person or group, and would be immoral (and even “prohibited”) for another.

And indeed that’s exactly what we see. For some people giving money to someone who has done nothing to earn it is considered immoral, while for others it’s immoral not to do so, if the recipient is in need. Of course it’s not the giving of money that is moral or immoral, it’s the reason behind it (and we’re back to context). The author, philosopher and cognitive linguist George Lakoff has written several books that have helped me form my thinking around this; most notable “Moral Politics” where he argues that the metaphors we use to help understand society (and our place in it) impact our sense of morality. I’ve written about him and his views of how our particular morality shapes our politics, so I won’t go into that again here.

So it’s this second sense of morality, that it’s context-driven, that makes me nervous when it comes to the creation of law. Laws, by their very definition have to apply to everyone within the region encompassed by that governing body. But if each person has their own individual morality, and those morals are the foundation of laws, then how do you create a set of laws that apply to everyone? It can’t be as simple as majority rule; as I’ve argued before, the Bill of Rights expressly protects an individual’s rights against the majority (as represented by Government). I’ve also pointed out that a sheep and two wolves deciding on what’s for dinner may be democratic, but it’s not a good way to run a society. Alternately, allowing whoever’s in power to decide isn’t much better; in the South, Jim Crow laws were used for generations by the local politicians as a way to control the African American segment of their populace; in retrospect we wonder how that ever was allowed to happen.

Of course there’s another question about whether there is such a thing as Morality (with a capital “M”) that would apply to everyone, and that’s a corollary to the question of whether there’s objective Truth. Although that’s for another post (and in fact I have written about it earlier), I do believe there is such a thing as a Universal Morality; a behavioral code that applies (or at least OUGHT to apply) to everyone, but it’s a slippery thing to define.

What most people mean when they talk about morality being the base for our laws is closer to Judge Roy Moore’s view of the world. And that scares me.

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Salisbury, the Magna Carta and lawmaking today

A couple of months ago Cathy and I vacationed in Southwestern England. Our in-laws (Cathy’s sister Nancy, her husband Dan and their son Conner) joined us there, largely because Nancy had traced the family ancestry to some small towns there and we wanted to see where that part of the trail began. (We had always wanted to see the Cotswolds as well.) There’s wonderful little villages full of picturesque cottages (like this one) and some great hiking trails; we’ve always wanted to visit there and this looked like a great opportunity!

One of the towns we stayed in is Salisbury, where a beautiful cathedral dating back nearly 900 years (construction began in 1220) makes for a great afternoon walk through history; of particular interest is one of only a handful of surviving original versions of the Magna Carta. As I’m sure you’re aware, that magnificent document was the result of some arm-twisting of King John around the same time as the Salisbury Cathedral was being built, and while it is considered the template for the rights of all humans today, when it was written it was nothing of the sort; it was the barons of the time forcing the King to cede some of his power to them, and was a manifestation of the philosophy that there was a set of laws that even the king was subject to. Prior to that, whatever the King said (or could get away with) was law, and woe betide anyone who objected overly vociferously. They were likely to find themselves “shortened” by the King’s headsman or locked away in some dungeon forever. Anyhow, King John’s barons got fed up with his capriciousness (or heavy-handedness or whatever) and forced him t
o accept a set of codes that limited his freedom to act in any way he saw fit and recognized the barons had certain rights as well. Interestingly, most of the things written in the Magna Carta are no longer laws; there’s a couple of exceptions around the right to a fair trial, but by and large it’s no longer a template of current law. With one major exception mentioned above:  the philosophy that there is a body of laws that apply within the boundaries of that country, and that everyone…EVERYONE…is subject to those same laws.

So building on that philosophy, our Founding Fathers enshrined a Bill of Rights in our Constitution that codified what was the government’s, what was an individual’s, and what was “Society’s.” It also includes the rather interesting language in the Ninth and Tenth Amendments that any rights not expressly reserved for the government devolved to the states and to the individual, effectively creating a limit to governmental reach.

I’ve explained in previous posts why I don’t think laws do (nor should) have morality as their exclusive basis, although clearly there is a relationship. I also wrote about why simple Utilitarianism fails; in a nutshell if doesn’t protect the rights of the individual against the whole (a task that is admirably accomplished in our Bill of Rights).

So where do (or should) laws come from?

I think the answer is a blend of various different underlying foundational points. I listed a series of points in an earlier post that I think encapsulates where our laws here in the US come from, and I think that’s close, but I’ll try to fine tune it a bit here.

First, Utilitarianism. The greatest good for the greatest number. Starting with that at least gives a nod to an underlying principle for developing laws. To be precise, it’s usually defined as what brings the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest number of people, presumably because the greatest “good” is too ambiguous. I have a bit of a problem with this, since it is theoretically possible to live in a community where causing suffering or pain to others makes people happy, which by Utilitarianism would be the desired outcome. That doesn’t make it right, so I’m using “good” here in the sense that Plato meant in describing the good life. It could be argued that “good” and “moral” here might be interchangeable, which would then bring us back to morality as the proper source of law, but I don’t think that’s correct either; mainly because morality is all too often dictated by the current attitudes of the group; they change over time and from group to group. Different groups thus have different definitions of what is moral, so it’s not a universally-accepted code. Laws need to be universally applied (at least within the borders of that country), so if morals aren’t universally accepted then no laws can be based on them.

But a utilitarian basis must also take into consideration the rights of the individual (articulated in the first ten amendments to our Constitution, also known as the Bill of Rights). So here’s a thought experiment:  you’re the sheriff in a small town that’s been plagued by a series of terrible crimes. For reasons that only you know, those crimes have ceased and will not recur. (Maybe they were committed by a person who has since been run over by a bus, but you can’t prove he was the thief. And say no one would believe you.) In any case, the town is still jittery and you know the only way to calm things down is with a show trial and conviction. So you frame someone who has no standing in the community, get them convicted and executed for the crimes, which satisfies the community and gets everyone back to their lives. This is a classically Utilitarian outcome, but it’s still wrong to convict someone of a crime they didn’t commit. That’s why the Bill of Rights must be the filter through which a utilitarian system must be viewed:  the greatest good for the greatest number, UNLESS it violates an individual’s rights.

A third component of a foundation for law (in my humble opinion of course!) needs to be a consideration of moving towards some ideal or utopian goal. This is of course hazy and difficult to define (kind of like “the good life” I’ve written about before), but in my mind still very important. Although what constitutes “an ideal society” is beyond the scope of this blog entry (and probably me as well), I think there is such a thing. And furthermore, our laws should help us move toward that goal. I think our Founding Fathers, recognizing this, did an outstanding job of setting the foundation and pointing the direction, but obviously there is a process that is required to keep us going in that direction.

And having these underlying principles as a filter through which to view our law-making process will, I think, help us get there.

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Eclipses, buckets lists and mortality.

The Bucket List is a movie with Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson, with Nicholson playing an extremely wealthy (mostly retired) businessman who’s pretty much a total jerk, and Freeman is a middle-class man who finds himself in the next hospital bed, both of them stricken with diseases they are unlikely to recover from. Feeling his mortality in a particularly acute way, Freeman’s character (who is also relentlessly nice in the face of Nicholson’s boorish behavior) proposes that, if the two of them each survive their current health crisis, that they embark on a series of adventures that each has wanted to do but kept putting off. Freeman’s good-natured charm gradually softens Nicholson to the point that he’s willing to using his resources to fund their adventure, since they both do make it past their respective crises, and off they go. This gives the movie its name (things each wanted to do before kicking the bucket) and provides the foundation for all the other subplots. With two such acting heavyweights it’s a good film, and actually not “Hallmark Channel predictable” either. I recommend it.

Anyhow, yesterday’s events got me thinking of Bucket Lists. Unless you were living in a cave, you almost certainly knew that we here in the US of A experienced a remarkable (and rare) celestial event in the form of a total solar eclipse; I read that over 200 million people live in the path of the shadow (complete or partial) as it swept from the Oregon coast to South Carolina, and a huge number of people traveled to sometimes remote sections of the country to sit in the dark for a couple of minutes (I read that the longest stretch of totality was in Carbondale, IL at about 2 minutes and 47 seconds). I was in far western Oregon at ground zero and had just under 2 minutes of darkness as the moon completely blocked the sun. My friend Mark Elliot had decided some time back that we wanted to see this literally once-in-a lifetime even (a total eclipse that covers so much of the country), so we planned out generally where we wanted to go (a remote spot to avoid the biggest crowds but still relatively accessible, high probability of a cloudless day, and so forth).

I flew into Boise planning to camp out at my friend Mark Kaye’s yard while the other Mark (along with his daughter Blair, her boyfriend Duncan, and Duncan’s sister Maddie) drove from Seattle. Mark et al were planning to scout good viewing spots as they got close to Boise. I still have no idea how they found the spot they did (nearly 20 miles up a gravel road west of the tiny town of Huntington, OR off Interstate 84) in a bovine-free cow pasture (based on the desiccation of the cow poop it look like no mooing had been done in this particular pasture for several years). I drove up from Boise (an easy hour or so drive) and met them in Huntington and we took off for the hinterlands, camped under the stars on Sunday night and had a perfect spot for watching the eclipse. Not a cloud in the sky, high 80’s for temperature and not another viewer in sight (there were a couple of other groups not too far away, but the hilliness of this area hid them from us and we felt like we were the only people for as far as we could see.)

Given the path of this eclipse, most people in the US were not only aware of it, but a great many got to experience it in some fashion. Either directly watching (hopefully with appropriate eye protection), or at least noticing the drop in temperature and darkening as the moon’s shadow crossed the country. It was an amazing event, and I’m really glad I went.

I got to cross off something from my bucket list. But the very presence of such a list gives me a bit of pause; the obvious implication is that the clock is ticking. And in point of fact it is, and for all of us. So I guess the  point is that none of us are going to live forever, so if there’s things we want to do we better get moving.

Turns out there’s another total solar eclipse predicted for less than 8 years from now here in the US; this time it starts in Texas and sweeps up in an arc to Canada, leaving the continent in the Canadian Maritimes. Cathy and I have already begun plans to get there. You might want to update your personal bucket list.

Posted in General commentary on the world as I see it..., Travel | Leave a comment

What is the source of law?

Roy Moore is a former Chief Justice for the Alabama Supreme Court who is currently running for office for the US Senate; specifically for the seat vacated by Jeff Sessions when he was tapped by Trump to be his new Attorney General. I say “former” because he was removed from his post. In fact, he was removed from his post twice; the first time for his refusal to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from the Alabama Judicial Building (he also commissioned the monument in the first place), and then after being removed and subsequently re-elected to the Alabama Supreme Court, for his directive to probate judges under him that they continue to enforce a ban on same-sex marriages in spite of the loss of the ban after an unsuccessful appeal.

Anyhow, it seems pretty straightforward that Ol’ Judge Roy believes that the basis of law is (and should be) morality, and specifically a Christian morality based on a literal interpretation of the Bible. His stand against gay marriage is clearly a Biblical one. And as such, a monument of the Ten Commandments would make a fitting statement in his courthouse. But I argued in my last couple of posts why I don’t think it’s appropriate to make morality your basis for law; morality (in my view) is not “Absolute.” It’s instead a function (at least for most people) of where you were raised and what religion your parents practiced. If Roy were to have been raised in Saudi Arabia then Sharia would be a fact of life for him and he’d be cutting off the right hands of shoplifters and stoning women to death for sleeping with the neighbor. Of course he’d likely argue that “Well, they’re just wrong! The Holy Bible in all its inerrancy is literally the Word of God and not the Quran, so the Ten Commandments should be posted in our courthouses as the foundations of our law!” Or something like that.

However, and this is the crux of it, many people are highly moral people without any belief in a supreme being who might punish them for their misdeeds. Atheists and agnostics argue that they are good people simply because it’s the right thing to do; having nothing to do with a belief in God. Furthermore, we could all point to people who are (or at least profess to be) people of strong faith (pick any denomination) and yet by most standards would not be considered “moral.” Either in personal ethics, business ethics, or even their relationship with their spouse. So adherence to a religious dogma is only casually related to the actual practice of morality (or ethics), at least by my observation.

But that’s not really the point I’m pursuing here:  where do (or should) laws come from? Should they be based on an external morality guide (such as the Bible, Quran, Bhagavad Ghita, etc.) or is there some other source? Clearly there IS some kind of external foundation, but I think I’ve made a compelling case (in these last few posts as well as others on this blog) that religion is too local, fluid, open to interpretation and divisive to be that foundation.

So what should the foundation for laws be? In my opinion, the current process for making laws works pretty well. It’s actually a combination of underlying principles that I think can be encapsulate as follows:

  • What’s going to provide the greatest good for the greatest number or the people? (This is simply Utilitarianism).
  • What will prevent the most harm to the greatest number? (A reverse of the above, but essentially the same underlying principle).
  • What is the “right thing to do?” (Admittedly this is pretty loose and open to interpretation, but it’s also slightly different from Utilitarianism. See below for my take on how this ties in.)
  • It’s better that 10 guilty people go free than 1 innocent person get convicted of a crime they didn’t commit (this is really more of an underlying principle of the criminal justice system, but I think it’s germane; our laws should be created with how they will be enforced in mind).
  • A fair sprinkling of bones being thrown to special interest groups. This last is a fact, but not a good thing. A significant number of laws are enacted not to protect society (or individuals) but to benefit a wealthy donor or industry with whom the bill’s sponsor wishes to curry favor. I wish there were a way end this practice, but I think it’s been thus since, well, forever so I’d say it’s unlikely to change.

The issue of “the right thing to do” and how it differs from Utilitarianism is pretty straightforward. What’s best for the greatest number (Utilitarianism) doesn’t protect an individual. It may be best for a large group of people to take property from one individual, but that doesn’t mean it should be done. In fact, the Bill of Rights specifically protects the rights of an individual against the rest of the populace and is pretty much the opposite of Utilitarianism, when applied to specific cases. The old adage that two wolves and a sheep talking about what to have for dinner comes to mind. That may be “democracy” and “Utilitarianism,” but we have laws to prevent an individual’s rights from being trampled “for the greater good to the greatest number.”

I have written before about my views of what makes something “the right thing to do.” And of course this is a question philosophers have been arguing about since well before Aristotle, so I won’t pretend to solve it here but it’s still fun to noodle around.

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Should morality determine legality?

In my last couple of posts I talked about the legalization of marijuana throughout the country as it is already in more than half of the states (I think it would be a good thing). That got me thinking about the reasons that people might think legalization would be a bad thing, and I addressed what I think are the three main reasons in my last post. But one of the things that became clear is that a lot of people think it would be bad out of some sense of morality, and their desire to apply their moral code to everyone. We see this in all kinds of things, but the reason it came up in my thoughts was because of the Temperance Movement, and the comparisons I drew between Prohibition and today’s “war on drugs.”

So in this post, I’m exploring the notion of where laws come from, and whether morality is (and should be) the underlying source of laws.

I think it’s inevitable (and many would argue that it’s appropriate) that laws reflect the morality of a society. It’s wrong to steal, so a law prohibiting it enshrines the “wrongness” into societal standards, but also (and maybe most importantly) gives society the ability to punish people who steal. But is it wrong to steal because (and only because) it’s immoral, or are there other reasons it’s wrong? We do have things as a society that are considered immoral or unethical, but they aren’t illegal. For example lying is unethical (and immoral) but it’s only illegal to lie when you’re under oath in a court of law. It may be that it’s not illegal because it would be literally impossible to prosecute every lie, but I think there are better reasons; not all lies carry the same harm. Telling my wife when she asks me that yes, a certain dress makes her look fat would be a very bad idea, and few would say that lying in that situation is immoral. (In a tongue-in-cheek moment a while ago I defined “tact” as “the series of small lies that we tell one another that provides social lubrication and keeps our society civil.”)

Another (and to me more compelling) argument is that societal norms are fluid. There are places right now in the world where it is considered immoral for a woman to drive a car or go out of her home without a male relative to escort her, and the local government has made that illegal as well. People in Western (and mostly First-World) countries think that’s absurd, and is the result of 7th-Century morals being applied to today’s society. Even here in the US, what was moral (or immoral) even a few years ago has changed, as the 1934 musical “Anything Goes” with the song by Cole Porter attests (see it performed at the 2011 Tony Awards ceremony.) It wasn’t all that long ago that adultery was illegal here in the US, and even more recently anti-sodomy laws were pretty common.

There’s lots of other examples that we could explore where morality does not automatically dictate what is regulated by law as illegal behavior, but it’s also clear that there are times when it does. And I think historically, it was pretty much universally assumed that if something was considered immoral it should also be illegal. This was especially true where the line between the church and political rulership was blurred or even nonexistent. I’d argue that even today there’s a significant subset of our populace who believe that any disconnect between morality and legality is evidence of the decline of our society; in fact I recall a book written by Robert Bork not too long ago named “Slouching Towards Gomorrah” where he argues that legalizing of abortion, assisted suicide and the decline of religion are all indications of a society in decline, which he says are the result of the rise of Liberalism. (For what it’s worth I think that’s errant nonsense, but that’s for another posting.) Furthermore, if you were to ask a random selection of people what dictates whether something should be a law, I believe a significant majority would tie morals to legality.

But just because one part of the world believes that something is immoral doesn’t (and shouldn’t) mean that’s true everywhere. I read a paper a number of years ago that made the point that for every belief I hold near and dear and absolute, someone, somewhere has the exact opposite belief that they cherish just as strongly. So what makes me right and them wrong? Of course, the next question is whether or not there is such a thing as universal morality; an “absolute Truth.” I think there is, but that’s also for another posting.

Suffice to say, I think morality and legality are two separate and distinct concepts and in fact should be kept that way.

There’s more to this though: if morality doesn’t dictate legality, what principles should laws be founded upon? Stay tuned.

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Drugs, booze and personal choice (part 2)

In my last post I made a case for legalizing marijuana use across the country, as it already is in 26 states including my own. I think we’re being hypocritical as a society in making that particular activity a crime while allowing alcohol consumption to virtually everyone over 21.  Regulate it, tax it, control distribution (just like is the case with alcohol), but make it legal.

The arguments against that include that it’s a “gateway drug” and will inevitably lead to the use of harder and harder drugs and ultimately life-shattering addiction, that the use of pot saps initiative and makes people lazy (the “stoner” argument), and that people will be impaired and unable to function in society (imagine a bunch of stoners on California freeways).

I’m not an expert on the effects on society of drug use, so I’m not going to try and prove one side or the other, but I think applying a little critical thinking might be of use here.

First, the gateway argument. While it’s probably true that most heroin or meth addicts smoked pot before they began using heroin or meth doesn’t mean that smoking pot inevitably leads to harder drugs or addiction any more than having a beer will lead to becoming an alcoholic, or that pocketing a candy bar at the local 7-Eleven will lead to a life of crime. (Note that I’m not saying that shoplifting is OK, just that there’s no evidence it leads to a lifetime knocking over banks). The counter to that might be “True, but if someone never smokes pot then it’s much less likely that they will just start using crystal meth. It’s better to nip it in the bud.” Again, while the first sentence may be a true statement, the “nip it in the bud” second sentence implies an automaticity to the process that is not borne out by facts. Association is not causation. Furthermore, I know lots of people who use pot but have no interest in harder drugs. There is such a thing as an “addictive personality,” and maybe that person should stay away from pot, but that can’t be extrapolated to the general population.

The next is the lazy stoner argument. I see two responses to this. The first is “so what?” Someone’s personal motivation has no effect on others; if one person is less motivated because they’re high, that just means that they are less likely to be competitive and someone else will benefit from getting the job, ranking, trophy or whatever. That might not be the ideal outcome for that individual who would prefer to get high, but it’s not society’s responsibility to make everyone maximally productive by passing laws to ensure that outcome. My second argument is, I’m unconvinced that the “lazy stoner” is anything more than a cliché. I know lots of very productive pot smokers and well as a boatload of lazy nonusers. Of course smoking pot is relaxing, and some indulge to the point of becoming unmotivated and even lazy, but lots of things do that. People have a cocktail after work to relax and no one talks about “lazy boozers,” so I think the laziness is more of a cliché than anything. In my opinion the “lazy stoner” argument doesn’t hold water either.

The third issue is one of impairment and frankly this is a little more of a concern to me, but it has a much broader subtext that needs some exploring. First off, I believe the “impairment” associated with firing up a joint is a continuum, not an either/or (just like alcohol). Having one drink in an hour has not been associated with significant impairment, as your body burns off the alcohol of one cocktail in about an hour. To reach alcohol blood levels deemed enough to be drunk generally takes two or more cocktails (or one-ounce alcohol equivalents) per hour. I suggest one joint is probably not enough to impair judgment or reaction time (although admittedly, some pot packs a pretty powerful punch, I’m told).

So I think the “impairment” argument fails also.

But the broader subtext is this:  the reason that Prohibition was passed was largely because of the efforts of the Temperance Movement, which saw alcohol consumption as universally evil. They pointed to public intoxication, the damage to families caused by alcohol, and so forth. Most of these arguments are morality-based, which raises the question about whether morality-based laws make sense.

This is looking like it’s going to take some more thought and development, so I’ll reserve my discussion for another post.

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Booze, drugs and personal choices

One of the greatest blunders in American constitutional law is arguably the 18th Amendment, prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States. It was submitted for ratification exactly 34 years before my birth, and took just a shade under 13 months for ratification, becoming law on January 16, 1919. It was such a significant mistake that it is the only Amendment to be repealed just under 14 years later by the 21st Amendment, on December 5th, 1933. (For the record I think the 2008 decision of District of Columbia v Heller is a worse disaster, but I talked about that at length in a previous post. I say this is arguably a worse blunder, as it is the only Amendment that was repealed by a subsequent Amendment.)

Prohibition, as the 18th Amendment was called, also became the name for the time period during which the 18th Amendment was in force. It is credited with the rise of organized crime in the US, largely through the illegal import, manufacture and sale of alcohol. Most people still wanted to drink, and since it was now illegal to buy it openly, they resorted to illegal sources. The law of supply and demand dictated that the demand would be filled, and The Mob (as organized crime came to be known) was happy to do so. The gangsters who led The Mob were apparently pretty good at organizing, and a massive, but obviously illegal industry grew with them at the helm. Huge amounts of money changed hands from the distribution and sale of the illegal booze, much of it going into the pockets of the gangsters of course, but a significant portion of it went to influence (and corrupt) law enforcement through payoffs, bribes, kickbacks and so forth. So-called “speakeasy’s” abounded where normally law-abiding citizens could indulge in one of their favorite pastimes.

The main reason this is on my mind is that I’m on my way home from Chicago right now, where speakeasies, Prohibition and the Mob led by notorious Al Capone figured so prominently during the Roaring Twenties/Prohibition. I even went to a bar reminiscent of speakeasies of the time called Untitled, which advertises the largest collection of US bourbons in the world. Very cool bar, and I intend to go back! One of the managers is Theodore Feingold, the brother of a friend of mine, Marla Feingold).

Anyhow, that time is romanticized today in movies and TV, but we should remember it was actually a pretty brutal time. Once The Mob got organized, prostitution, gambling, extortion and other activities followed, but the worst brutality came as different groups within The Mob fought for ascendancy and a larger piece of the action. Turf wars led to brutal murders (mostly of other mobsters with the occasional innocent civilian caught in the crossfire) and in places like Chicago people lived in fear of being caught up in these wars. One of my favorite Chicago restaurants is CPOG (Chicago Pizza and  Oven Grinder), which is in building on north Clark Street that local lore has it was used as a lookout during the famous St. Valentines’ Day Massacre where six mobsters and one hanger-on were lined up and machine-gunned as part of these afore-mentioned turf wars. Although it took over a decade, it became clear that attempting to force a particular moral code (temperance) on the population of the whole country was a bad idea and the 18th Amendment was repealed by the passing of the 21st, as I said earlier.

So…let’s see. Are there any similarities to a situation today? Obviously I’m talking about the current war on drugs. State after state (26 at last count) as well as the District of Columbia have either outright legalized recreational use or provided permission for medical use. I am not a fan of pot, coke or any other recreational pharmaceutical, but I have close friends who are. I have felt for a long time that our societal war on drug use is misguided at best. It seems silly to make smoking a joint a crime when there isn’t a shred of solid evidence that it harms anyone beyond the same harm that comes from smoking cigarettes.

It seems to me it should be a personal choice to use it, that it should be regulated and taxed just like alcohol consumption. The cost to society, similar to the cost to society of alcohol consumption, is the subject of another post.

Posted in General commentary on the world as I see it..., Political commentary | Leave a comment

The Republicans want to take healthcare from poor people to give a tax break to the wealthiest.

I have to be careful how much political commentary I watch on TV because I find myself getting angry with our entire political situation. No one seems to be able to (or even want to) come to any kind of consensus, which means nothing gets done. And of course consensus, which is reached by everyone giving up some ground to arrive at something that, while clearly not perfect from either perspective, is at least acceptable, is the core process for making our government work. But now, each side refuses to budge; obviously willing to do nothing rather than allow the opposite party to make points.

So of course what we have is stalemate. I believe that Democrats have negotiated in good faith, but I willingly admit that may be my biases revealing themselves. In my defense I suggest looking at the negotiations (done out in the open, with public hearings and weeks and weeks of deliberation) that lead up to the Affordable Care Act. The result, while watered down from the original position that I felt was not only workable but necessary for the long term, resulted in the most significant benefit to the poor, sick and elderly since Medicare. Contrast that with what the Republicans have done:  concocted what is little more than a scheme to take vast sums of money from existing programs to give tax breaks to the top 1%, who manifestly don’t need them. This new “Trumpcare” plan was done in almost complete secrecy to avoid any comment or scrutiny until the last possible second, with the intent to ram it through a vote before the financial and social implications could be evaluated. The particular hypocrisy of Senate leader Mitch McConnell is staggering, since he was one of the most vocal critics of the Democrats’ plan, which he said was negotiated without time for public commentary or legislative deliberation; exactly what he’s doing now.

He doesn’t currently have the votes to pass this pig of a bill, but I’m not really very happy with the reason; only two or three Republicans have voiced concern about healthcare access by the poor or ill among their constituency; most of the rest who say they won’t support it, say so because, unbelievably, it doesn’t go far enough.

There’s a full-court press by McConnell to whip up support in the Senate. Particularly chilling to me is a report I read about a meeting he held with fellow Republican Senators where he evidently told them that “a no-vote on his bill is a yes-vote on Obamacare (which as everyone knows they have spent the last 10 years promising to repeal). But what was even more disturbing was his follow up statement that, if his bill goes down in flames, the Senate may actually have to negotiate with Democrats in the next iteration.

Think about that for a minute. McConnell is telling his colleagues that the worst possible thing to do would be to actually have to sit down with Democrats and negotiate. I’m truly astounded that he would say that. Isn’t that what a representative democracy is all about? Shouldn’t that be the first and most important thing he would do? Last I checked the Democrats (and, by the way, Independents such as myself) are citizens of this country too. When bozos like McConnell dismiss more than 50% of the populace as being beneath the courtesy of sitting with at the negotiating table, it is abundantly clear that he and his like-minded lackeys to the ultra-rich have put political ideology above what’s right for the country.

Not especially surprising, but disappointing nonetheless.  It is disgusting that, in the richest country in the world, the party in power is trying to take away the right to healthcare from the poorest in order to give money to the wealthiest.

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Trump’s approval rating is in the toilet pretty much all over the globe

I think just about everyone knows how abysmally low the Tweeter-In-Chief’s approval ratings are, and I think for good reason. The guy’s monumental incompetence is evident in almost everything he does. I got back about a month ago from Mexico; I was invited to do a workshop there for about 100 of our Distributor’s reps and doctor customers. And when talk worked its way around away from business a bit, Trump came up. And no surprise, he has very few friends in Mexico either.

Surprisingly, the comments I heard weren’t so much about The Wall (although that did come up); my impression is that the fact that nothing has been done this far into his administration (in spite of his promises that “On Day One” he’d start building his “beautiful, beautiful wall) has given people there the belief that no wall is going to be built. Instead, it’s looking more and more like it was nothing but bluster and bloviation, and most of the people I spoke with are less concerned about than they were shortly after the election.

Instead, the comments I heard had to do with his arrogance and the damage he’s doing to the image of the US around the world. Three different people commented in different conversations how foolish he looked when he pushed aside the PM of Montenegro so he could get in front of the group for one of the group photos at the NATO Summit, and then stood there preening for the camera. (I agree; what a disgusting display of narcissism!)

There was a lot of talk about Trump taking the US out of NAFTA, and how they believe that’s going to lead to chaos and increasing prices. One of the doctors’ husbands is originally from Canada (he’s been in Mexico for about 3 or 4 years now), and he commented from the perspective of both of our trading partners (while China is our largest trading partner, Canada and Mexico are number two and three, respectively, as individual countries; the EU as an aggregate is far away the largest). Like here, people just simply cannot understand how Americans could have elected such an incompetent, ill-informed buffoon to the most important office in the world.

I was also traveling in England recently and got essentially the same reaction. Interestingly, the people I spoke with there couldn’t understand Trump’s actions either and thought him an incompetent idiot. This was particularly interesting as the people I spoke with who were the strongest in their dislike for Trump were also strong supporters of Brexit and had an “England First” attitude similar to those supporters of Trump.

In conversation today, the consensus was that he’s not going to serve out his term; it’s only a matter of time until the Republicans realize he’s dragging their part down and kick him to the curb.

The biggest concern is how much damage he can do to the United States, both locally and globally before he leaves office. I fear it’s going to take a long time to undo the damage he’s causing.

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Dunning, Kruger and Trump

Years ago I took an anatomy/physiology course in a local community college. To prep for one of the major tests we were to take I buddied up with another student for a couple of evening study sessions and was a little surprised at how little my partner seemed to know about our assignments. When the test day came I was more than a little anxious; I never think I’m adequately prepared for taking tests in spite of the fact that I usually do pretty well. Anyhow, after the test and before finding out the results, I asked my study partner how he thought he did, and he said (without hesitation) “Oh, I aced it!” I wasn’t nearly as confident, but it turned out I did well, and my partner didn’t (he barely passed, as I recall). At the time I thought he was blustering when he predicted his results, but I’ve discovered that may not the case.

In 1999, Justin Kruger and David Dunning published a study they did at Cornell University entitled “Unskilled and Unaware of It:  How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” What they describe (which has since become known, logically enough, as “the Dunning-Kruger effect”) I think helps explain a lot of what I see in our current President. As stated in their introductory paragraph, the Dunning-Kruger effect explains why people tend to “have overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains.” The authors state that “…people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.” In other words, they not only lack the skill itself, but since it takes a certain intellectual capacity to realize they aren’t got at that skill, they are literally too stupid to realize they suck at it!

So let’s take a look at Trump. He has said over and again how smart he is. He said “I went to an Ivy League school. I’m very highly educated. I know words, I have the best words.” And “no one is better than me at” (fill in the blank). Yet he is patently wrong about almost all of them. He’s really terrible at almost everything he claims to be good at. He can’t build a consensus, he can’t create a leadership team, he can’t move his agenda forward, and most often it’s because of stupid things he himself does!

I thought for a while that maybe he’s really smart and playing a role, but I am beginning to think that he’s a walking example of the Dunning-Kruger effect: he is simply too stupid to know how bad he is at things, and he has no one among his inner circle that is willing or able to tell him.

I wish I could take credit for this observation, but the great British actor and comic Stephen Frye provides voice-over on a really nice description of this phenomenon and how it’s playing out in the White House. It’s on You Tube and I highly recommend taking the 7 minutes to watch it. There are several other You Tube videos with nice explanations; one is here and another (an interview with one of the authors 0f the study) here.

That’s scary enough to me. Even scarier is how many people are willing to follow this idiot. “Let’s give him a chance. He’ll ‘Make America Great Again.’ I’m just sure of it.”

So far, he’s made a mess of nearly everything.

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