Our “No Trust” Nation

Who and what are Americans to believe in today?

Polls show that we suffer from a crushing lack of faith in government, business, educational institutions, religion, law enforcement, news organizations—and one another.  The outcomes of this perhaps unprecedented collapse in trust in most every aspect of our daily lives are felt everywhere we look, and this likely accounts for much of the sour and suspicious insularity that pervades both our politics and personal lives today.

Our personal lives are based on trust, and the frightening cynicism that pervades our society—and manifests itself most obviously in our suffocating self-absorption and childish focus on our own personal needs above all else—drives many to either “hook up” without any long term commitment or simply retreat into daily lives built around video games and online pornography.  The amazing numbers of people who are alone—yet seem not to even want to bother with human intimacy—is a symptom of a culture and people devoid of even the minimal faith necessary to have a cup of coffee with someone whom they find interesting or attractive.  Of course, anyone willing to contemplate either emotional or physical intimacy must also reckon with the amazing lack of both personal boundaries and respect for the privacy of others that now pervades our existences.  Expect to have a slurp-by-slurp description of your encounters pop up on social media somewhere because apparently an occurrence is no longer real until it is blared to a global audience—which is both frightening and ridiculous.

No society can thrive without trust.  No one will, for example, be willing to engage in dialogue if they doubt both the veracity of the information provided and the good intentions of others involved in the conversation.  Moreover, the willingness to marry, start a business, have a child, earn a college degree, buy a house, or work diligently at a job—each a basic function inherent in a successful nation—all rely on trust in either the future or in others.  No modern economy can thrive without the willingness to both extend credit and assume reasonable debt; the alternative is a pre-industrial system of barter trade that was the key feature of medieval life.  Worst of all, those who lack trust gradually—and catastrophically—stop thinking about the future and focus on nothing other than the here and now, which is an impediment to building the societal consensus necessary to both solve problems today and make the investments of time and money needed to ensure successful tomorrows.

The counterargument is, of course, that our leaders and institutions have failed us and are undeserving of our trust—and there is certainly validity to this.  However, although we seem to now be unable to easily find leaders who can readily recognize that sweet spot on the spectrum between naive idealism and ruthless realpolitik, we must also keep in mind that the renowned men and women of our past were probably not much better.  Time tends to wear the rough edges off both memories and events, and part of the problem with our “warts and all” modernity that records—and endlessly replays—our political and cultural highs and lows is that we are mercilessly stripped of our illusions and reduced to weary cynicism because we cannot escape the fact that our leaders are just a fallible are we are.  Much like children who are crushed to find out there is no Santa Claus, we rage over the foibles of others who share our human weaknesses and are disappointed that no one in charge can ever satisfy our every need in precisely the manner in which we want it to be satisfied.

This childish need to have our every wish granted without having to deal with gritty and unwelcome realities is likely a key component of the irrational attraction many voters currently have for socialism—now rebranded as a new and improved American type of “Democratic” socialism offering the same empty promises that have beguiled previous generations around the world.  

As a system of political, economic, and social organization, socialism has probably destroyed more lives than the Black Plague, but its attractiveness to those who believe that capitalism has failed because some are rich and some are poor is perhaps less puzzling when we view it as a symptom of our crushing lack of trust.  

If one proceeds from the presumption that no one can be trusted to provide what you “deserve”, and there are those who promise to help “the people” experience painless wealth and ease by taxing and regulating those who hold undeserved wealth and power, it sounds pretty darned good. Particularly in light of the harsh fact that our nation—along with most of the developed countries around the world—is crashing headlong into the fiscal limitations of the post-WW II welfare state, the promise of endless benefits paid by a magic pot of money extracted from those who either lucky, smart, or both is simply irresistible to many who have no trust in the American economic system today.  

This will not, of course, end well, but socialism’s many bold promises initially play well with people who have lost trust in their leaders and institutions. However, before we go that route entirely, it might be worth asking the Russians of 1917 and the Germans of 1933 how state-run socialism worked out for them in the long run.

The obvious problem we now face is that—after many decades of continued government interference and control of our national economy—we are far closer to socialism than should be comfortable. The redoubled efforts we will now face to encourage yet more “partnership” between business and government—which typically takes the form of subsidies, regulations, and ever more threat of legal jeopardy—are not going to solve the crisis of trust that so infects much of our electorate. Recommencing our nation’s journey along the path to more government control and oversight of our economic life, which has been only slightly interrupted over the past couple of years, is likely to further cripple the hopes and dreams of many, leaving them little choice but to be further infantilized by elected officials and bureaucrats who will promise parental care and understanding—if only they are given the power to do so by voters so dissatisfied with their lives that they will choose to believe in the snake oil of socialism.  After these new-style socialist officials are in power, we will be assured of little but that the rewards of hard work and personal initiative will continue to erode as this terrible and destructive path to national ruin turns more Americans into passive and miserable wards of the all-powerful state.

Revealing the truth—that although sometimes people are ridiculously lucky or terribly unlucky, most success in an actual capitalist system still derives from brains, hard work, and sacrifice—is nowhere near as much fun as promising oodles of freebies. Telling people to put their heads down and work harder—but without any guarantee of having their fondest dreams fulfilled—is not a winning campaign message when so many are preoccupied with the blatant and blinding unfairness of a system now run to enrich the few at the expense of the many. However, until the electorate wises up to how the current economic disasters of their lives are brought to them courtesy of their own government’s corrupt and idiotic polices, which is doubtful at best, many politicians will continue to peddle their own version of El Dorado, the mythical “lost city of gold” that was there for the taking.

For those who don’t care to Google it, the myth of El Dorado drove many early explorers to madness and mayhem as they scoured the jungles of Central and South America for the gold and jewels that they were told were just lying there ready to be scooped off the ground.  Why did they believe such an outlandish and implausible story?  Perhaps for the same reason we continue to elect those who promise us all manner of government largesse without any explanation of how to pay for any of it.  We choose to believe in wild tales of wealth that can be ours for the taking because we find the belief comforting—particularly when we no longer trust our nation and its leadership to watch out for our best interests because the system is run for the benefit of insiders and government-sponsored grifters.

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Bombs Away?

The recent spate of mail bombs sent to prominent Democrats was abhorrent. Sadly, those who are angry—and likely isolated and delusional—can terrorize us in a variety of ways, but attempting to murder others with anonymous bombs is particularly cowardly and awful.

Thankfully, law enforcement has already identified and arrested a suspect, and one can only applaud the incredible work of the FBI and others who worked so skillfully and quickly to apprehend him. We are lucky indeed that no injuries resulted from these explosive devices, and continued investigation will discover whether others were involved with these criminal actions.

Now let us take a step back, count to ten, and watch the actions of a dangerous and disaffected looney become immediately tangential to the political blame game that will blaze through the media between now and the midterm elections—and likely far beyond.

This is the sad and divided nation that we live in today. Rather than simply be grateful that an obviously crazy individual was captured and no one was hurt, we are going to have to portion out the blame for a crazed bomber to one party or politician based upon our own blame-filled political beliefs. How fortunate we are that the period between now and the midterm elections can be packed with some extra bitterness and bile beyond that which already is poisoning our national dialogue.

For the record, it is my belief that trying to find a logical reason to explain the actions of those who are clearly mentally unstable is itself just a bit crazy. Keep in mind that President Reagan was nearly killed in 1981 by a cuckoo who believed that political assassination was the ideal way to impress a famous actress—these oddballs aren’t renowned for their logical and linear thinking. The history of political violence throughout our world’s history is basically a parade of lonely losers who were deluded enough to believe that killing a leader would somehow redeem their miserable and empty lives.

It would certainly be for the best if all our pundits and politicians could refrain from riling up their viewers and supporters in their eternal quest for ratings and votes, but this will never happen. Conflict is, perversely enough, a winning strategy; to pretend otherwise would be both foolish and naive.

Moreover, because we quite naturally revel in hearing that the viewpoints and actions of others prove our own moral and intellectual superiority, our increasingly partisan news and information systems have ready and credulous audiences. More and more hearing and reading no thoughts other than those that match our own, daily tailoring what we hear and read to match our preconceived notions about the “reality” of the world around us and those who inhabit it, creates an intellectual echo chamber that only further narrows our already narrow minds and hardens our hardened hearts.

The word bombs that destroy our tattered unity will only become worse if we do not take action. Therefore, I suggest that we consider reviving an updated version of the Fairness Doctrine, a federal policy that we heedlessly and needlessly discarded in 1987 which required news and information programs to present contrasting viewpoints regarding the issues of the day. This policy was not a perfect solution—and discussions about implementing any similar policy will crash into today’s enormously complex and interconnected digital world—but it did provide for some welcome and necessary measure of balance regarding the presentation of news and opinion.

Our nation and its citizens are poorly served by the hyper-partisanship of our media today. The very existence of, for example, a super conservative Fox News and an abundantly liberal MSNBC—both sneering at the sheer stupidity of the other side—contributes little to creating the bipartisan consensus that is necessary to govern a country as diverse as our own. Each monocular and insular side of our national dialogue is equally culpable for creating the anger and divisions within what is perhaps now ironically called The United States of America. We are anything but united at the present time, and it will be a long and difficult road back from the chasm where we now stand—suspiciously staring at one another.

For any improvements to occur, we will also need to surrender that which is so precious to so many: a smug and intellectually lazy sense of our own correctness. As hard as it might be, admitting we can be wrong is the necessary first step to national reconciliation and unity.

Disorder In The Courts

Setting aside for the moment the unbelievably dispiriting saga of the Supreme Court nominationof Brett Kavanaugh, which is clearly a political and cultural inflection point that will keep commentators scribbling for decades to come, it seems apparent that our entire federal system of jurisprudence is suffering from a crisis of legitimacy that is perhaps unprecedented in recent memory.  

Some of the problems are self-inflicted wounds that are the result of obvious miscarriages of justice that have wronged the innocent and released the guilty.  Some issues have arisen from moving far away from simply applying or interpreting laws and becoming super-legislators whose individual judgments supersede those of duly-elected representatives.  Other difficulties facing our federal courts are the inevitable outcome of our nation’s ever widening cultural and moral divisions—every ruling now produces an army of the disgruntled.

The law and our federal courts have, of course, always been imperfect tools in our eternal quest for justice on earth because the humans who write and apply our laws are themselves imperfect creatures who are subject to the same stupidity and shortsightedness as us all.  However, the hope was that rigorous training of both lawyers and judges in evidentiary proceedings conducted under rules established by both precedents and common sense would be sufficient to reduce the opportunities for either fear or favor to influence the rulings of our federal courts.  This has not always worked, but additional procedures for appeals are available, and a trip up the marble steps of the Supreme Court has always been the final leg of the journey for those seeking justice.  

It is important to remember that, even when the wheels of justice turned slowly, the general perception was that the federal courts were a reliable bulwark against destructive partisan passions.  Although we understood that justice was sometimes elusive, judges and the courts were still held in high regard.  Despite the sometimes reasonable perception that true justice often seemed reserved for rich, white males, Americans had a sense that the federal courts were capable of hearing the pleas of those who felt historically disenfranchised and responding—if belatedly—to their needs, and this served to burnish the reputation of our federal courts in spite of all their missteps on the path to modernity.  Consequently, generations of idealists worked to make improvements to both the operations and outcomes of our federal court system, which enabled a broader spectrum of American society to enjoy the benefits of living in a nation of laws.  If small town local justice sometimes seemed small-minded, the federal courts many times provided the necessary broad corrections that could later be applied nationally through the precedents set by their rulings.

How far away this all seems today….

Perhaps the most pressing problem now facing the federal judiciary is one for which they have only themselves to blame: Abandoning the role of arbiter and assuming the mantle of advocacy has turned judges into yet another subset of political hacks within a system rife with political hacks.  Outsized egos and a lack of respect for the dire consequences of judicial activism have pushed the federal courts further and further beyond their constitutional mandate, which is sadly understandable if you consider the foibles of human nature.  

As much fun as it might be to be a “rock star judge” who finds new and inventive ways to circumvent judicial limitations and seize the powers delegated to the legislative and executive branches of government under the Constitution, the price to pay is the destructive surrender of all-important perceptions of restraint and impartiality.  The unsurprising result has been that federal judges are now subjected to the same rough and tumble scrutiny as those who must regularly win re-election to their offices by presenting their partisan credentials to voters—welcome to the jungle, Your Honor.

As the federal courts have come more and more to both reflect and reinforce the partisan splits in our nation by seeking to circumscribe—or outright negate—the laws and regulations approved by the President and Congress, they have waded deeper and deeper into stormy political and moral waters they cannot possibly navigate without eventually drowning.  Moreover, by making their own partisan agendas ever more apparent through their frequent speeches and voluminous writings, judges serving at the federal level are discarding all remaining pretense of objectivity in favor of social engineering on a scale that would both astonish and alarm their more circumspect predecessors on the bench.  

The sadly predictable outcome is never ending sniping and frighteningly vicious confirmation hearings that are erasing whatever tattered prestige our highest level of courts still retain.

We may not at this late date be able to turn back the clock because our nation’s elite law schools have themselves become the training grounds for a radical judicial philosophy that—terrifyingly enough—believes judges are wiser stewards of our nation than those whom we elect to represent us.  The outright disrespect for our democratic processes that we today so often see manifested in the rulings of our federal courts is an insult to the genius of our nation’s political system, which is still the wonder of the world despite its human flaws.

Therefore, having founded a nation by rejecting the divine rights of kings, it might just be the case that we will renew our nation’s commitment to democracy—however maddening and messy as the will of the people might sometimes be—by opposing the “divine rights” that have been assumed by judges who believe it is their prerogative to strike down legislation, oppose the President, and impose whatever mandates they see fit upon a captive America with a single court order.  

The battle has been joined, and those on both sides of this issue clearly understand what is at stake.  Whatever the outcome might be, we can be certain that our perceptions of the federal court system and its role in relation to the other two branches of our national government are about to undergo a profound shift—and the outcome will either begin to heal or further divide our already troubled nation.

Opinions Will Always Vary

I have been puzzling over the stark and seemingly insurmountable political differences that divide our nation these days, and I see some cause for hope—as faint as it might sometimes seem—in the current crop of more moderate candidates running for office across our nation today. Perhaps we are finally growing weary of shouts and insults as a proxy for policy discussions.  Accusing those with different views than your own of all manner of moral and intellectual failings—in the most caustic terms possible—tends to excite the excitable, but it also forestalls any opportunity for the sometimes inelegant compromises that keep the wheels of our nation going round.

There are obvious differences between the policies of our two major political parties. The clashes between the capitalists and socialists, those who favor open borders and those who do not, and the advocates of Big Government vs. fewer rules and regulations are both never ending and necessary.  The debates between diametrically opposite points of view sparks the synthesis that provides the solutions that we need to solve our problems.

However, our focus upon surface differences often ignores the morals, values, and judgments that inform our individual opinions.  Characterizing others as either “good” or “bad” based solely on the degree to which they agree or disagree with us neatly avoids the messy and occasionally maddening business of discussing the ethical, religious, and personal values that inform our decision making on a range of matters.  This failing enables the facile insults that now are the most prominent feature of our daily political and social discourse.  The shocking ease with which we demonize those whose ideas differ from our own often seems more like the rude and immature chatter in a middle school lunchroom that a discussion between reasonable adults.

Although we are often far from agreement on many issues, perhaps we also sometimes fail to understand how our differing priorities both divide us—and also have the potential to bring us together.  Think of a great many hot-button topics, and you will find the debate typically falls along familiar lines: Liberals will focus more on “rights”, and conservatives will be more preoccupied with “responsibilities”.

However, rights and responsibilities are simply two sides of the same coin because every right comes with an equal responsibility to use that right wisely and reasonably.  When we recognize this fact, we can better attempt to search for common ground regarding a variety of issues—and hopefully engage in a dialogue that will lead to less rage and more actual discussion.  Whether we are talking about issues as varied as law enforcement, housing, immigration, healthcare, education, military spending, or pension security, we can possibly have more polite and productive conversations that can lead to policy proposals that will solve problems rather than prompt yet more discord—if we remember the linkages between our rights and responsibilities.

There is also one further connection between rights and responsibilities than warrants our attention.  We have the right to disagree with others because our own values, priorities, and judgments lead us to different conclusions; however, we also have a responsibility to respect opinions and ideas that are different from our own.  We may believe what we do with all our heart and soul, but there is a very good chance that someone believes otherwise.  Their opposing ideas are not a signal that they are evil or deluded—or a ready target for our anger.  We are instead face to face with an immutable fact of life: Opinions will always vary.

We are welcome to advocate and attempt to swing others to our viewpoint through reasoned discussion and debate if both parties agree to engage, but we must resist the human urge to heedlessly denigrate—or ruthlessly attack.  We live in a big nation within a far larger world, and sometimes we are going to need to live by rules that conflict with our own because we assume certain responsibilities as members of a broader society.  We have the right to dissent, to support political candidates whose ideas align with our own—or even run for office ourselves.  However, we must always be keenly away of our responsibilities to others—and be aware that there is no “right” to be selfish, self-centered, or sneering.  This might be a tremendous disappointment to those who enjoy attacking others, but perhaps these are precisely the sort of individuals who are deserving of far less of our support and attention in the future.

The Fluid “Truths” Of Statistics

Over the past half century we have, as I have pointed out before, increasingly turned over the management of our nation to credentialed experts. These experts direct virtually every aspect of our lives based on jargon-filled studies and massive data sets, which purport to show that all their recommendations and actions are in our best interests. To question their judgments is to question logic and reason itself—and will earn you a whomp on the head with the latest edition of The Journal of Unquestionable Truths.

However, as statisticians have known for a very long time, the problem with data is that it can be readily manipulated—and deceptively compiled, selectively presented, or entirely ignored—to “prove” whatever you might wish. This numerical black magic is a boon to politicians who need to either direct attention away from their own job performances or whoop up anger to win votes.

One well-worn way to conceal the truth is to use methods of measurement that define the problem away. The official U.S. unemployment rate is a fine example of this chicanery. In order to be considered unemployed, you must have actively sought employment—that is, applied for a job—during the previous four weeks, which does a wonderful job eliminating discouraged workers and those for whom no suitable job openings are presently available. Moreover, you are no longer considered unemployed if you work a single hour—yes, one hour!—during an entire week. Very few people can purchase food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare with just one hour of pay, so this seems like the cruelest gaming of the numbers imaginable.

It has been variously estimated that the actual unemployment rate would double—or even triple—if a more honest accounting of those driven out of the job market or unable to secure full-time work were used, but I would not hold my breath waiting for this day to come. Comforting half-truths boost the reelections of many incumbents and must be maintained.

Another handy trick for misleading the public is to present data without context in order to support a narrative that would be contradicted were the full story actually to be told. Given the national attention now being paid to the issue of fatal police shootings of African-Americans—which is a matter that should always be of the keenest possible concern—one would hope politicians would focus upon sober facts in order to avoid inflaming public opinion and causing unnecessary fear of the police, but this is unfortunately not always the case.

Most would probably be amazed that during 2017, the last full year for which statistics are available, less than 1000 people were killed by the police in the United States. Roughly a quarter of these cases involved civilians who were mentally ill, in only 7% of these cases was the person who was shot unarmed, almost a third were fleeing the police—and roughly twice as many whites as blacks were killed by the police that year. It must also must be noted, were one interested in facts, that 135 police officers died from duty-related causes during this same year.

Although the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the small subset of unarmed African-Americans killed by the police must be carefully reviewed for signs of incompetence, bias, or malfeasance—and the officers involved punished if this is the case—we should not be routinely and loudly characterizing police officers as wanton murderers and racists. The facts do not support these assertions. As is often the case, the truth is much more complex and frustrating, and simplistic and dubious mischaracterizations interfere with the core mission of law enforcement, which is to apprehend the accused and protect the public from criminals.

A final way to fudge statistics is both simple and startling: ignore them altogether. We see this method most visibly used when it comes to reporting on the academic outcomes of our nation’s K-12 public schools and the students who attend them. Even though voluminous data on academic progress and college/career readiness is readily available across the nation—and helpfully broken down by individual schools and school districts—think carefully about the coverage you see on a daily basis about the public schools in your area. Most of the stories focus upon charming human interest topics such as high school athletes triumphing over adversity, trips to petting zoos and museums, sweet middle school students raising money for charity, teachers attending conferences, principals engaging in goofy stunts to raise school spirit, or retirees reminiscing about their careers.

One would be hard-pressed to ascertain from the occasional dribble of actual data provided by the media that American public education performs very poorly overall—and at far greater expense—compared to other nations, American college students continue to flunk out at astonishing rates due to weak K-12 academic preparation, and public school teachers are abandoning the profession in droves due to problems with disrespect, threats, and violence from both students and their parents. Education reporting seems to have, in many cases, abandoned actual investigation and inquiry in favor of rewriting glowing press releases because criticizing public schools risks offending powerful constituencies that include local businesses, construction companies, real estate agents, and neighborhood organizations—all of whom have a stake in the illusion of successful local schools for reasons both personal and financial.

Numbers do matter, and we ignore troubling trends and ongoing problems at our own peril. The peculiar lack of national coverage concerning our mounting and terrifying public sector budget deficits and debts is a fine example of a looming and significant problem that is largely absent from our 24/7 news cycles. As much as we enjoy our daily diets of scandal, silliness, and celebrity gossip, perhaps—just as the regular consumption of sugary sweets eventually rots the teeth—the consumption of “news” that provides no complete or reliable data to support its dishonest assertions and wild accusations is contributing mightily to our horrifying and destructive civic rot.