24 January 2016

Opposite Day

Clearly the only explanation for Jeb Bush's almost effortless stroll to the Republican nomination is the pernicious stranglehold of big money in politics. 
Oh, wait. Bush is in the low single digits in most national polls, despite his campaign and his super PAC raising more than $100 million. 
Perhaps that's only because Donald Trump, the billionaire populist, is buying the nomination with his dragon's hoard of gold? Well, no. Trump has spent less than any other major candidate. 
But surely Hillary Clinton, with her close ties to Wall Street, her husband's storied hobnobbing with the global .001 percent, not to mention her vast Rolodex of Clinton Inc. supporters going back four decades, has bought herself the nomination? 
It doesn't look that way, according to the polls. She's losing ground to Sen. Bernie Sanders in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Sanders has raised more money from small donors than any other candidate in American history. And he's done so by declaring nothing short of war on what he calls the "billionaire class." 
"I do not exaggerate when I tell you that the foundations of American democracy are being undermined," Sanders told some students at the University of Chicago (and pretty much anyone else he's ever talked to). "American democracy is not supposed to be about billionaires buying elections." 
You'd think that if the "billionaire class" -- all 536 people -- had the kind of unfettered control over the U.S. political system Sanders believes them to have, Mr. Sanders would be asking, "Would you like fries with that?" 
Instead, he's got a plausible, if not yet entirely probable, shot at the Democratic presidential nomination. And even if he doesn't emerge victorious, he's already dragged Clinton to the left on the issues the billionaires are supposed to care about. 
And Trump, widely disliked among his fellow billionaires -- at least the Republican ones -- has had remarkable success demonizing his wealthy peers. 
The simple fact is that almost everywhere you look, the super-rich are being stymied by democracy. In 2014, David Brat, an unknown academic, defeated the second most powerful Republican in Congress, then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, even though Cantor spent more money on steak dinners than Brat did on his whole campaign. The recent referendum on marijuana legalization in Ohio was lavishly funded -- and failed. And just a reminder: Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney and his plutocrat pals. 
Those evil corporations aren't faring much better. We constantly hear about their vise grip on Washington, yet we still have the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world (not counting United Arab Emirates). Big corporations rightly want to be able to repatriate their profits earned overseas without being taxed on them again. (Most countries allow corporations to pay taxes on profits solely in the jurisdictions where they were earned.) And yet they can't get it done.
There are certain complaints that don’t make sense until you invert them.  For example, the complaint that big money is subverting democracy doesn’t actually match the facts.  But if you invert the complaint to, “big money has a minimal effect on democracy,” you suddenly get a clearer sense of the issue.  It feels like it should be the case that the government’s apathy towards voters’ desires is the result of some shadowy billionaires buying off all the politicians.  Instead, the real problem is that the government’s apathy is the result of having grown so large that it is incapable of acting responsively.

By the same principle, the Salem witch trials don’t make a lot of sense either.  If those convicted of witchcraft were truly witches, wouldn’t they have used their witchcraft to escape punishment?  But once you invert the complaint, it becomes clear that the real issue with those convicted of witchcraft was precisely that they were not witches.  In essence, they couldn’t deliver.

When dealing with these sorts of complaints, it’s important to separate the cause of emotion from the rationalization for it.  The causes are often legitimate (in this case, government inefficacy), but the blame is usually misattributed (in this case, all-powerful billionaires exerting influence).  In fact, blame is always misattributed in these sorts of matters because if those who are blamed were truly powerful enough to cause the problem, they would also be powerful enough to escape retribution.
The key to dealing with these sorts of complaints is to validate the underlying emotion but address the real root of the problem.  Ironically, the people being blamed for causing the problem are usually the ones best suited to deal with it.  Moreover, the mechanism being blamed for the problem is usually the one best suited to deal with it.

For example, white males and their patriarchal racism are generally blamed for the problems currently facing the black community.  Of course, it was white males who ended slavery and gave blacks equal rights, so clearly the complaint is divorced from reality.  Ironically, black culture was healthier and stronger when white males were dominating it, so the solution the problems facing the black community today would likely be solved by white males forcibly imposing their superior culture on blacks and excluding insubordinate blacks from society.

In like manner, a lot of government problems would be cleared up if billionaires like Donald Trump or Jeff Bezos took control of the government since they have much more practical administrative experience.  Of course, they would impose a much more centralized command, and would also impose a more uniform code of standards on the country as a whole, which would make for a more rigid and authoritarian government, and would severely undermine regional cultures in favor of a national culture.  However, that is the least messy solution to the current government problem, as the alternative is dissolution and temporary chaos.

At any rate, the lesson to be learned from all this is that complaints are not to be taken at face value.  The underlying emotion may be correct, but it is generally far wiser to do the opposite of what those who are complaining say to do.

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