Patriotism

The political right has been extremely successful at coopting the major symbols of what it means to be American to their own cause. The flag, the national anthem, the US military and indeed the concept of patriotism itself are all heavily used as symbology in advertising and rhetoric by the Republicans and the far right. The constant drumbeat is that those on the right are the real Americans, and those on the left are not. Taking this phenomenon under the general rubric of patriotism it is worth considering the origins and true meaning of this concept.

When we speak of loving our country, the word country can have one of two distinct meanings and it is important to distinguish between them. In Ancient Greek this distinction is illustrated by two word roots that we encounter in modern English, both of which loosely translate as country: patris and ethnos. Though the distinction has been largely lost in English these words carried very different connotations. Ethnos referred to the country in the sense of nation, as distinguished from other nations, including the idea of racial heritage, or ethnicity. Patris, on the other hand, referred to the country as a socio-political institution. So in reference to the USA the ethnos would refer to the country as distinct from, say, Canada our Mexico, whereas patria would describe the country as a socio-political system; our patria is a representative democracy with a written constitution and a certain defined system of government. This distinction, which might at first seem nitpicking, becomes of vital importance when considering government. In this context, loyalty to the ethnos would refer to support for the particular government in power, whereas loyalty to the patris would refer to support for our particular form of government. In other words it is the difference between government as a concept, and the particular government that we have right now. Between the presidency as an institution and the specific president now in office.

The Greek word patriot did not describe someone who supported their ethnos, who might be pro Greece and anti Sparta, but rather someone who interested themselves in the patria, or the affairs of their country in the sense of how the community was organized and run. Such a person might be pro democracy and anti autocracy, for instance. In the sense we use the word (the ethnos sense), the opposite of a Patriot is a traitor. In the Greek sense (the patria sense) the opposite of a patriot was someone who only cares about their own concerns and gave no thought to public affairs. The word for the opposite of a patriot was derived from the word for self, which is id. The opposite of a patriot was an idiot.

This is not a joke or a word trick I made up, it is is true. The word idiot was later adopted by the Romans and its meaning changed to something more approaching an ignorant person, and further changed in English to someone of low mental ability, but this change in meaning is a clear indication of how the Greeks and Romans regarded those who did not participate in public affairs. This is significant today because the Greeks and the Romans were the only major societies we know about that seriously experimented with democracy prior to the founding of the USA. We might do well to return to this understanding of patriotism (and idiocy). Different forms of government make different demands on their citizens. Autocracies offer the perceived advantage that the citizens are relieved of responsibility for the situation they find themselves in. There is nothing you can do about it anyway, so you may as well just get on with your life and not worry about it. Democracies on the other hand are demanding. You are expected to play your part, even if that part is just caring a vote. Government is complicated and messy. You have to decide between competing benefits and harms, and when things do not turn out the way you thought or hoped they would, you have to take (collective) responsibility for the results.

When the country was young and memories of past oppression still fresh, the general population appreciated the opportunity to have a say in their own affairs, but over time memories faded and the people lost interest. This left a power vacuum which special interests were only to happy to fill, and over time our form of government has been stolen from us.

Term Limits

Government at all levels is perceived as being out of touch and inefficient. Elections are bought by incumbents with the power of money provided by special interest groups. Lawmakers we once respected are stripped naked before us, revealed as merely human after all, and not very pretty to look at in the light of day. The ship of state is in sorry tatters. Certainly something must change.

Turning out the incumbents, imposing term limits, that will show them, right? Let’s get some new blood in there, and shake the place up; blow out some of the cobwebs. So why am I not happy at the trend? 

I have three problems with the idea of term limits.

First, I don’t think it will really solve the problem. Already in California I read about state senators running for Assembly seats vacated by those running for the senate! If the purpose is to introduce new blood, I am afraid that instead we will still have the same old faces, just in different places.

Secondly, even if it does work, I don’t think that term limits will have the results expected by most of those in favor of the idea. I see rejoicing among the liberals because they see a lot of wealthy old conservatives getting forcibly moved on out. This should open up opportunities for the liberals to gain ground. Unfortunately many Democrats will also see their terms expire, and they will have to be replaced by new faces too. Here is the problem; a system that requires a constant supply of fresh candidates is going to favor the big money. It is very expensive these days to give a candidate enough exposure to be a serious contender in a major election, so candidates are going to be even more beholden to the special interests. We will have slick, well-rehearsed quickie candidates. We have elevated style so far over substance that we will be sitting ducks for the PR machine.

My third reason is that constantly changing the political officeholders enhances the power of both the bureaucracy and the lobbyists. Our elected representatives may not do too good a job keeping an eye on these people who already have huge amounts of power, but it will be even worse if they have to retire just when they are really getting to know the job. If lawmakers are coming and going the only people who know how things work are the people who are always there, most especially the lobbyists (whose ranks will now be swelled with termed-out former officeholders). Do we really want to increase the power of people over whom we have no control? People who are subject to no term limits, face no elections? 

If all this sounds too amorphous, consider that these bureaucrats run the IRS, the DMV and the Franchise Tax Board. The people we elect to office are a main line of defense against the power of these organizations, frail though that line may be. Term limits demand we lose the best along with the worst. 

I am not saying that everything is fine and that the people who are running things should not be challenged, but it is foolish to get rid of people simply because they have been in office a long time, irrespective of whether they are doing a good job. We are in danger not merely of throwing out the baby with the bath water, but of throwing out the baby and keeping the bath water.

Proposal for fixing the campaign finance problem

The United States Supreme Court has ruled that giving money to political candidates is a form of free speech, and therefore cannot be regulated. Many of us profoundly disagree with this conclusion, but nevertheless given the recent change in the ideological balance on the Supreme Court this decision is unlikely to be overturned in the near future, so from a practical point of view we are stuck with it. However I believe that all is not lost. There is a strategy that could be implemented that would take account of this reality and yet still ameliorate the problem.

While it is argued that the giving of money is a right, it would be hard to argue that it was also a right for the recipient of the money to know who gave it. I would propose modifying the campaign finance laws in the following way. Set up an agency that would be charged with collecting and distributing all political donations in such a way that a wall is maintained between donor and recipient. All money would be passed along in random amounts different from the donation amounts and at times unconnected with when the donation was made. This way, although donors could claim to have donated money to particular candidates, they would be unable to prove it.

The main difficulty would be to devise a method of ensuring that the money really was passed along in a verifiable fashion to the proper recipients without anyone being in a position to know both donor and recipient, and without requiring an excessive degree of trust, which is in short supply in today’s political environment. This is a significant problem, and may indeed turn out to be impossible, though it would seem that blockchain technology may offer a solution. Unfortunately this technology is so little understood that it is hard to know for sure.

If it is not possible to set up a completely blind system it would be necessary to have trusted intermediaries to do the job, which would not be ideal, but should not pose an insuperable barrier. We already have people who are privy to highly secret information that could easily be used for personal gain yet we trust that they do not use it for such. IRS auditors are one group that come to mind. I am not necessarily suggesting we should use IRS auditors as a solution to our problem, but rather pointing out that the mere ability to act dishonestly does not always produce that result.

A combination of careful selection and very harsh sanctions for breaking the rules would keep any possible leaks to a minimum. It is not an argument against a proposed system that it might not be completely proof against dishonesty; we do not need to seek perfection, but rather a substantial improvement on the status quo. Most people are law abiding, and would hesitate before exposing themselves to substantial legal consequences. The likeliest result of adopting such a system would be that it would expose the hypocrisy of those claiming the free speech rights for their contributions. When they could not legally exert any influence on their donees (because the could not prove their donations) I would predict that the majority would simply stop donating.

Campaign Contributors and Influence

A candidate for County Supervisor has come under fire because much of her funding comes from interests that seem to be at odds with her professed values. In a local public forum she spent much of her opening statement complaining about how she is being treated, and expressing outrage that anyone should suggest that she could be bought. 

Her second line of defense was to point out all the positions she is taking that are against the interests of her contributors, and that she should be judged by her positions and programs and proposals not by her contributors.

Contributors and their money are solid fact, the rest is just words. It is easy to come up with high flown rhetoric, but it is a poor predictor of what you will do when you are elected and have to deal with the day to day grind of actually doing the work. Positions change, often quite legitimately, with changing circumstances. Campaigns are like first dates: everyone is trying to show their best face. Only later do you find out the real truth. 

With regard to the claim that she cannot be bought, I am willing to stipulate that she really believes this to be true, and that she is indeed an ethical person. But that is only to be expected. There is never a quid pro quo, especially at the start. We say politicians are bought, but that is not really an accurate description of what happens. It is much more subtle than that. You cannot usually point to any specific vote or action as having been done in return for a campaign contribution, but there are many invisible ways in which a contributor’s interests can be served. Much of the work of a supervisor is out of the public eye, and often involves monitoring the actions of officials such as those who enforce building codes, for instance. The fact that a supervisor expresses concern about a case will certainly change the way the official handles it, and it seems likely that if the supervisor shows a bias towards a particular outcome, the likelihood of that being the actual outcome is increased. Of course all of this is done with hints and innuendo, but bureaucrats become very skilled at divining the unspoken wishes of their bosses; it is an important survival skill. People with large financial interests have much more frequent interactions with officialdom than most people, and being known as a friend of a supervisor will certainly ease their passage. This kind of thing is often more important to the contributor than actual legislative matters, most of which they do not care about. 

The other thing that they buy with their contributions is access. They get their calls returned. They get to put their point of view, which is always dressed up so as to be politically palatable, directly to the politician. Everyone else has to stand up at meetings and try to get across a coherent message while the board secretly check their Facebook.  Politicians are only human, and when they are constantly exposed to a particular point of view cleverly expressed they tend to adopt that point of view. They find that these people who are portrayed by the protestors as evil are in fact charming and urbane, and really seem like quite reasonable people. They give money to charity and support the ballet. They are easy to like, unlike all those angry and rude people on the other side. 

The movie depictions are wrong: the devil never appears in smoke and flames with red eyes and a tail, he is dressed impeccably with polished shoes and is polite and solicitous. He has no need to play the heavy, he has people for that, and they make sure he is never bothered with the sordid details. 

There is no arm twisting, no threats, just the underlying realization on the part of the politician that they need to get reelected, and they need to keep that money flowing in, and people do not give money to politicians who thwart their interests. Of course everyone concerned realizes the political realities. If a politician could be seen openly voting in their favor he or she would be open to attacks on the subject, so that is saved for the direst situations. In general the contributor will not make demands that would damage his politician. But you can be sure of one thing: when the chips are down, and there is an important vote that will, say, stop a large development, you are better off having someone there voting who is not beholden to developers. 

The solution for all this is obvious: get the power of the money out of the system. One way would be public financing of campaigns. Another intriguing idea would be to erect a wall between donor and recipient. Anyone would be allowed to donate any amount to any candidate, but it would be illegal to do so directly, with very severe penalties. Instead they would pay the money to an Election Finance Board who would then forward it to the designated candidate, but broken into amounts that would not match the amounts of the donations, and with a random delay. The donor would get a receipt for the money, but the receipt would not specify the recipient candidate. Under such a system the donor could never prove to the candidate that he had given him money. Indeed donors could give a large amount and get a receipt and then go to each candidate and say that the money went to them, and the candidates would be none the wiser. With modern technology and a well designed system it would be quite feasible for no person, including those working for the Election Finance Board, to be able to identify both ends of a transaction. 

Candidates claim that their donors just want to get good people elected and do not expect any direct payback. If that is indeed the case the money people should have no problem with such a system, which allows them to support candidates as heavily as they want, but makes sure that they will not see any direct benefit for doing so. Some might object to introducing yet another government bureaucracy; to those I would say that there are some functions that are the proper function of government, and elections are most certainly one of them. Fair elections are the very basis of our power as citizens to affect the activities of those we elect.

Voting Machines

Most states now use electronic voting machines of some kind. It is reported that in at least 43 states the machines in use are more than 10 years old. There have been countless allegations and reports of irregularities concerning these machines. It has been shown that the use of these machines is frequently correlated with election results that differ unusually widely from pre election polls and/or exit polls.  In the past exit polls were considered the best way to detect election fraud; now, because of frequent anomalous results, they are no longer considered reliable.  It seems plausible that this is the result of widespread cheating rather than some change in the reliability of exit polls. 

All voting machines in use in the US are proprietary machines made by private companies. In some cases the top management of these companies are know supporters of a particular political point of view (pretty much exclusively the Republican point of view). It has been said that gambling machines in Nevada are better regulated than the machines that perform perhaps the most important task in any democracy, that of counting the votes. This is an unacceptable situation. 

I propose that a public interest group be set up with the aim of developing a voting machine that cannot be tampered with and that could be guaranteed to render the correct result. The code would be open to inspection by anyone. A large bounty would be offered to anyone who found a flaw, either a bug or an opportunity to alter the result. The penalty for exploiting such an opportunity would be so severe as to make the bounty much more attractive. 

The reason I am confident that this could be done successfully is that running an election is perhaps the simplest task a computer could be asked to do. The first requirement is that this be a completely purpose built machine. It should be designed to do only the minimum required to fulfill its function, and have no parts that are not necessary to that task. In other words it would not be a repurposed Windows or even Linux box. There is no need for any great degree of complexity, and certainly no need for any way of altering the code once the machines be had been set up for a particular election. Even then the only part that would be alterable would be the details about the candidates or propositions on the particular ballot. 

The underlying code would be burned into chips and completely unalterable. It would be able to handle any known voting system (first past the post, proportional representation, instant runoff etc). I am not sufficiently technically knowledgeable to be able to design such a system, but I know enough to be completely sure that it can be done, and indeed that it is not very difficult. As is often the case in our competitive system, most of the complexity is deliberately introduced either to discourage competition or to cover up opportunities for cheating. 

Part of the specification, and perhaps the hardest part, would be the requirement that there be some way for the voter to verify that his or her vote has been correctly recorded, while keeping in mind the principle that the vote be secret. It must be impossible for one’s employer, for instance, to demand proof of how someone voted, and the existence of a printed receipt that showed this information would enable him to do so. This would not therefore be a suitable way to provide this assurance. Again, I am confident that such a scheme could be devised if enough thought is given to the problem. This requirement might even be considered unnecessary in view of the fact that the code is available, and the voter can be sure that it has been vetted by a great many very smart people and that the machines had been tested according to a known protocol, and therefore perhaps be willing to take it on trust. After all, such an assurance is not available for any current method of voting. 

The machine itself could be made literally transparent for a powerful symbolic effect. Manufacturing should be a very straightforward matter and could be subcontracted. All machines would be thoroughly verified and the firmware loaded following a procedure designed to preclude cheating. This is perhaps the most critical aspect, as once the chips have been burned and permanently installed and the machine sealed no further tampering will be possible. I am confident that a group of intelligent people can come up with a suitable protocol, and this would also be published and feedback sought. The entire process would be as transparent as is humanly possible. 

Along with the machine the group should specify a complete protocol for its operation. This would include such topics as how it is protected from tampering between elections, and all aspects of its secure use. 

Once such a machine had been developed and tested, the group would turn its attention to getting it universally adopted.  A model law would be made available so that any state could easily require the use of our machine in all elections, and ban the use of proprietary machines.  It is hard to think of any valid objection that could be raised against such a proposal if it could truly be shown to be completed proof against tampering. 

The organization in charge of this project would be a nonprofit and would seek out highly respected people for its board. Bill Moyers and Jimmy Carter spring to mind, and I am sure a little thought would come up with many others. I feel that this is something that many people would regard as a public duty to participate in. 

One persistent puzzle is that all systems must be operated and managed by people, and given today’s extreme suspicion of governments how are we to design a system that is as close to incorruptible as is humanly possible, and persuade people of this fact? The goal should be to limit any potential tampering to only single machines as much as possible. If each machine has to be attacked individually it becomes much harder to mount an effective attack on the system. In addition all systems should be self checking and multiply redundant. 

Public Health Care

We hear a lot about the cost of health care, when what is actually being described is the price of health care, an altogether different thing. The idea that a fair price is what a willing buyer is prepared to pay to a willing seller assumes that if the seller asks an outrageous price, the buyer is free to walk away. If the seller has the only drug or procedure that will keep the buyer alive, he is not free to walk away. He has to pay whatever price is asked. There is no meaningful competition in the health care industry.

The so-called health care industry is in the business of trafficking in human life. If you do not have the money to pay them to keep you alive, they will let you die. If you are in severe intractable pain and do not have the money to buy their drugs, they will let you suffer in agony. They are permitted to charge whatever the market will bear. What will you pay to stay alive? Everything you have, if necessary.

Even the Medicare system is forbidden by law from negotiating prices with the drug companies. The one organization which is in the position of being able to deal with the drug companies on a relatively level playing field is forbidden to do so. They must accept the “market” price derived from the process of extortion described above.

I am constantly amazed that so many people seem to prefer the notion of privatized health care to a public system. The executives of a publicly traded corporation are obliged by law to act in the way that will best benefit their shareholders at all times. Nothing takes precedence over this. A publicly traded health care corporation is not in business to provide health care; that is a side effect. They are in business to provide as much profit as possible to their shareholders. This means that the person deciding what treatment a patient is going to get is going to make the decision that best benefits the corporation, not the patient. It also means that the extortion is not just a morally reprehensible policy, it is dictated by law.

A publicly operated health care provider, on the other hand, such as is found all over the rest of the industrialized world, exists to provide health care to the patient. Its employees will make the decision that best benefits the patient. 

Which would you prefer? To have your medical decisions made by someone who is paid to deny you care if they can find any reason to do so, or by someone whose job it is to make and keep you healthy? 

Minimum Basic Income

A commonly heard argument against the idea of a basic minimum income is that if everyone were given their living without having to work for it, nobody would work and civilization would collapse. Those advancing this argument tend to be members of the ownership class, and no doubt to them it seems reasonable. Why would anyone work if they did not have to for the sake of survival? Fortunately we do not have to speculate. We have a convenient study population who have in fact been given their living (and, in fact, considerably in excess of a basic living, which if the concept were harmful might be presumed to increase the harm.) Moreover we have data going back centuries and across a wide variety of cultures. I am referring to the children of the wealthy classes. 

Do we find that these people tend to sit around and do nothing useful, or pursue lives of dissipation? Some of them, even many, do indeed. Yet virtually all of the discoveries and philosophical theories that led to the Enlightenment, the age of science and the Industrial Revolution were made by people from this class. They were the ones with time and leisure to pursue studies without having to give consideration to earning a living from them. Very few indeed of those who gave their names to systems of measurement (Volt, Ampere, Pascal) or scientific theories (Darwin, Freud) came from the poorer classes. 

The situation is similar with respect to music and the arts. It is much easier to pursue success in these fields when you do not have to work a job after school, and when your parents can afford private lessons and top of the line equipment. My point, though, is not (here at least) to bemoan the unfair advantage the affluent have over everyone else, but rather to illustrate that people in the fortunate position of not having to earn a living do not have a general tendency to sit around and do nothing, and, to the contrary, such people are responsible for most of the advances that have given us, for better or for worse, the world we live in. 

A defender of aristocracies might say that all of this simply indicates the inherent superiority of the upper classes. They made all the great discoveries because they are smarter then the rest of the population. However there is no correlation between wealth and intelligence, and geniuses of all kinds seem to be distributed evenly across the whole population. The plain fact is that enhanced opportunity yields better outcomes.

If some mad experimenter were to secretly take 100 random newborn infants from African refugee camps, and exchange them for 100 random upper middle class American infants, other than perhaps standing out by their skin color each would grow up a more or less typical product of the environment on which they were raised. If even race is not determinative of talent or the ability to lead a useful life, social class or a wealthy background certainly is not.

Neither are natural talent or hard work and application sure roads to success. They certainly help, but the world is full of starving geniuses. The single talent that does enormously enhance the probability of success is the talent for handling money, or what we call business sense. Someone with this particular skill can succeed even without any other skills, but someone lacking it will seldom succeed even if they are otherwise highly skilled.   

The most important factor in determining success in life is opportunity. That opportunity might be the result of having a wealthy family, or it may be some stroke of good fortune, a chance meeting with someone in a position to give a hand up or any of a thousand possible scenarios that might make the difference between success and failure. Someone who does not get such a boost has a much harder time rising up the social scale.

There is every reason to suppose that among the poor and dispossessed of the world are countless Mozarts, Einsteins, Aristotles that will never have the chance even to know their talents, much less use them in the world, and there is every reason to suppose that if everyone in the world had a chance to shine we could usher in a new golden age.

Refuting Libertarianism

Rather than a left-right scale the political spectrum should be seen as an up-down scale. The Republican Party represent the interests of those at the top of the scale, and the Democrats those at the bottom. It is often said that both parties are equally corrupt and beholden to money interests, but I do not believe this to be true. As I see it, each party has an agenda it wishes to promote, and also things it does reluctantly in order to continue to get elected. For the Republican Party what it wishes to do is serve the interests of their wealthy sponsors. What it does reluctantly in order to gain votes is the bare minimum of social programs it can get away with. For the Democrats it is the opposite. What they want to do is the social programs, and what they have to do reluctantly in order to find their campaigns is some of the bidding of the wealthy. So even in the present deplorable system there is a difference that matters between the parties. 

Libertarians, often seen as being on the far right (or on my scale the top) actually do not really fit there. The reason they find common cause with Republicans is because both favor smaller government, but for quite different reasons. Libertarians believe in small government as a central principle, seeing the natural state of people as being rugged individualist as unfettered as possible by the law. Republicans just want to get the law off the backs of their sponsors, so they defund those parts of the government that have oversight over the big money interests. 

The fundamental fallacy of libertarianism is easily demonstrated. One of the universal behaviors common to all of our species is the forming of groups. We are a highly social species, and the idea of a single individual living completely independently without any dependence upon others is almost unheard of. Even in the “wild west” days, the heyday of rugged individualism, they could not have survived, let alone thrived, without the railroads and the Sears Roebuck catalog. We are each a member of countless groups simultaneously: family, congregation, team, work environment, town, county, state, country each claim us as members. Some groups we choose to join, others we are members of willy nilly. Among the latter groups are the various levels of society that we inhabit.

So what does it mean to be a member of a group? What is the nature of our relationship to the group, and to other members of the group? The first and most important thing to understand about all groups is that by their very nature they limit the freedom of action of their members. This is a universal rule of groups of all kinds. In order to gain the benefits of belonging to the group, its members agree to accept limitations on their personal freedom of action.  One might even say that the expression ” a free society” is an oxymoron, as the whole point of society is to limit the freedom of its members. 

In the case of society, the limits on the freedom of action of its members are codified as systems of laws. The more organized and complex a society becomes, and the larger the populations being governed, the more restrictions are needed for society to continue to function. It makes no sense to say, as the Libertarians do, that personal freedom is the ultimate good, and the closer you can get to that the better. Instead we should accept the fact that society is not just useful but necessary, and that we need to seek the optimal balance between the desires of the individual members and the quite legitimate needs of the society.

Group rights vs individual rights

Written in response to a posting deploring the granting of “special rights” for gays, saying that they should not be singled out for special treatment.


IMO this a straw man argument. Taking gays as an example, it is not the claim of gay rights advocates that gays deserve some special form of protection not available to anyone else. They are saying not that they should be granted rights, but that the rights to which they are already entitled are being denied. Therefore they are not demanding any kind of group rights, but rather the recognition of their individual rights, which they are banding together as a group to promote. I believe this to be also the case with every other rights group I can think of.

So while the writer is correct in saying that our rights are ours as individuals, this is not a valid argument for refusing to consider the claims of gays or blacks or women (for instance) as a class of people whose individual rights are being denied because they are members of that class.