The Salvaging: American Academic Philosophy Implodes

This brushfire engulfing Hypatia (the feminist journal of philosophy) is so intriguing. The article (“In Defense of Transracialism“) itself is fascinating, with its argument for imagining race as flexibly as we have begun to imagine gender. But no more fascinating than the response to the article (let’s call it an article-da-fe), particularly this “open” (although perhaps better viewed as “closed”)  letter to the journal, which urges the Hypatia editors to assume the fetal position, yank the article, and submit to all manner of degrading apologies and corrective re-education steps.

The Article

There is nothing particularly upsetting about the bio/onto/logical premise of the Rebecca Tuvel essay: that the fluidity of gender might apply to race. I’ve puzzled this matter a lot, although more generally with regard to the spectrum of skin tones, body types, hair styles, and facial features that loosely organize themselves around categories of “racial identity.” We discuss and assume the reasonableness of exploding the gender binary, a division between males and females which actually has a genetic, and a procreative, basis. The argument for blowing up the racial duality (or trinity, or quaternity, or what have you) is prima facie even more compelling, precisely because there is no comparably genetic basis for determining race. Honestly, one would have expected a spirited conversation on this irony to have taken root in the academy years ago.

The politics of gender and racial fluidity argue with equally compelling force for accepting this logic. Racial discrimination and gender discrimination both subsist upon what are essentially culturally embedded phylogenetic assumptions. Anyone who accepts the concept of implicit bias (as well as many who don’t) would have to agree that we all live with, encounter, engage, react to, and judge other humans through the use of heuristics that require virtually instantaneous, blunt-force clumping – into static, value-laden groups – of complex, diverse individuals, each of whom possesses their own unique intersectionality (a term that absolutely doesn’t require merely a negative construction, and in the context of the Tuvel transracial argument, assumes an unfortunate dependence on only oppressive and discriminatory experiences of identity that is incredibly self-defeating for whatever goals we might impute to philosophies of feminism, race, and intersectionality).

The Response

The open letter to the Hypatia editors, with signatures from nearly 1,000 academically and independently affiliated scholars (and from quite a few interested bystanders) is both chilling and comical.

Chilling because the letter discloses so clearly the paranoid, oxygen-deprived misery of the academic world. The lack of air for curious, playful inquiry. The absence of humor. And irony. The terminal fear that exists within an environment that is way too cloistered and self-referential and contingent. In which professional and financial security is so tenuous that literally every spoken or written word assumes a life-or-death meaning. In which “harm” and “danger” are omnipresent. In which no speech utterance can be taken on its own terms and allowed to find its way without subjection to the most tedious and depressing inquisitorial prosecution. When I read this letter, why did I keep thinking of The Name of the Rose (or, more poignantly, The Handmaid’s Tale)?

Comical (although sadly so) because the letter instantly memorializes itself as a Chaucer-worthy parody of feminist and intersectional rhetoric and so presents itself to the world as a rite of self-immolation. WHY Why why is this necessary? I now study, virtually full-time, the philosophical and organizational machinations of the white male overlords (among whom I suppose I count myself) who one might reasonably view as the true enemy, and clear target for the wrath, of feminist and intersectionalist scholars and activists. Do the authors and signators of this letter appreciate the catastrophic World Cup dimensions of their rhetorical own goal? Why should Charles Koch and Robert Mercer pour money into the coffers of war-on-women right-wing think tanks and lobbying organizations when incredibly self-centered and self-maligning academics will do their work for them?

The Blind Spot

I acknowledge that my interest in the debate about how we construct and build beliefs and institutions around gender and racial identity is extrinsic. Which probably accounts for my blind spot. I focus on and appreciate the liberating and healthy effects on human society and human existence, as a whole, of release from the influence and effects of rigidly defined identity categories. I love the idea that we are all, as individuals, marvelously intersectional, in a good way. That each one of us is related across uncountable dimensions to others among us in the world, but also absolutely unique and irreplaceable.

My blind spot was my failure to realize the logic of academic discourse in an insecure, unsupportive, fear-driven climate is the logic of defeat, in which one cannot even trust one’s friends and allies (poor Rebecca Tuvel who has been crucified, despite contorting the argument of her transracial defense to anticipate and accommodate the concerns and objections of her colleagues – seriously, we’re really not allowed to remember that for most of her life, Caitlyn Jenner was known as Bruce Jenner?). In this climate, truly exciting ideas about identity fluidity and intersectionality only lead to an endless regress of parcelization and enclosure of what we might ideally view as a cultural commons. We build fences (and fences within the fences) to secure and affirm our identities, only to discover how each fence summons a new set of enemies and a new set of grievances, while the identities we fortify dissolve and recede and slip from our view.

From Steve Bannon to Robby George: The Catholic Foundations of American Conservative Thought

This essay traces the arc within movement conservatism in the United States from Steve Bannon, Chief Strategist to President Donald Trump (and arguably the most reviled and feared conservative political actor in American public life) to Robby George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University (and arguably the most respected and influential conservative political thinker in American public life).

Stylistic and intellectual differences between Bannon and George, real though they may be, cannot obscure the common ground they share regarding both the sources and the implications of their ideas, specifically those ideas pertaining to Catholic (or Thomist) natural law. While neither might relish the comparison, the relationship between Steve Bannon and Robby George is the relationship between messenger and message, between musical prelude and orchestral suite.

The Messenger and the Message

Irish-Catholic Steve Bannon embeds in the White House an emotionally manipulative, threat-driven sensibility, with methods and antics that echo the methods and antics of Irish-Catholic Senator Joseph McCarthy (and, more recently, two fellow Nixonians, Irish Catholic nationalist Pat Buchanan and Catholic agitprop maestro Roger Stone). A sensibility, and a set of methods that are politically effective and destructive, but inherently unstable and unsustainable. For this reason, Bannon’s intellectually suspect flirtations – with Catholic mystics, fringe historians, and prophets of apocalypse – probably also entomb him politically, alongside fellow Irish-Catholic street brawlers, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, for whom success is ultimately about insurgency, about blowing up things, which means, ultimately, that one blows up oneself.

Put another way, Steve Bannon is all about tactics. An architecture of assumptions scaled to the existential stakes of our current moment in time might therefore tell us that Bannon is epiphenomenal. He is only the messenger. He is not the message. Bannon’s talents for political mayhem have surfaced and brought into more clear relief the remarkable influence of idea-driven institutions such as the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society around and through which American political conservatism has built itself into the dominant force in contemporary American politics. Catholic-powered ideas about natural law provide the most enduring and consistent thread of thought at the most high-profile and well-funded conservative think tanks and foundations. As the leading philosopher of Thomist natural law on the American political scene, Robby George most clearly articulates and contains within himself the distilled message and the intellectual contradictions of these institutions.

The Catholic Moment

Roman Catholic influence in American politics has mushroomed in the past 40 years, specifically in response to the crisis engendered by the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, but more generally as an organizational and intellectual presence best evolved to exploit and respond the cultural uncertainty and flux of our times. The precepts of Roman Catholic theology – specifically (although not exclusively) with regard to the human life / human dignity issues associated with reproductive politics – now interpenetrate conservative American political thought and nearly every political institution of consequence, including the Republican PartyCongress, the White House, the military, and the media.

Five Catholics serve as justices on the Supreme Court. A sixth, Neil Gorsuch, is a formerly devout Catholic who now worships as an Episcopalian. Antonin Scalia, the justice Gorsuch replaced, was of course also Catholic. Which means seven of the most recent ten justices have a Catholic background (with Episcopalian identification one shade of gray removed from Catholicism). Prior to the appointment of Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court in 1986, only six of the previous 103 justices serving the previous 197 years of the Court’s history had been Catholic (the first being Roger Taney, appointed by Andrew Jackson in 1836).

None of this happened by accident. The hegemony of Puritan/Protestant ideas/ideals in American history always masked a specific organizational weakness. We can presume this organizational deficit is dispositionally endemic to fractional/fractious religious movements. In the case of American cultural formations associated with Protestantism, we can also speculate this institutional insufficiency was reinforced by the omnipresent option – dating back to the settlement patterns of 16th-century Protestant sects – to separate, to drift, to disperse, to migrate. Or as Albert Hirschman’s paradigm might suggest, to exit. This weakness the Articles of Confederation expressed politically and the Constitution and doctrines of federalism barely masked.

American Catholics lacked both the recursive instincts to fractionalize of post-Reformation Protestantism and many of the first mover settlement options of Protestant sects and communities that preceded the arrival to the United States of Catholic immigrants. But American Catholicism possessed a latent advantage that proved to be enormously functional in the decades following World War II, when economic growth and global reach allowed American Catholics to attain business and financial prominence and political influence that had previously eluded them. That latent advantage was organizational, a capacity integral to an enormously sophisticated, globally minded religious enterprise with centuries of experience building institutions and making theory practical via the law. And when theory – the systematic elaboration of ideas about cause and consequence – becomes practical and programmatic, it suddenly also becomes powerful.

Antonin Scalia and the Death of American Law

cropped-paudiss_christopher_e28094_wolf_fuchs_und_schaf_e28094_1666[Note: I wrote this essay several years ago, but am mindful of its relevance as we consider the Antonin Scalia legacy in the aftermath of his death, a task that remains especially vital as Donald Trump, nearly one year later, prepares to appoint Scalia’s replacement. While legal conservatives lionize Scalia, his impact on American jurisprudence and American society has been toxic, perhaps irredeemably so. Scalia’s medieval religious views and equally hidebound perspective on Constitutional Law epitomize what one might call an ontological fundamentalism that quite suddenly runs rampant in American political thought these days.

In October, scores of Constitutional originalists (among them George Will, many others scholars affiliated with the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation) publicly stated their dismay at the prospect that a man as unreflective and unfettered as Donald Trump, “a man uniquely unsuited for the office,” might become President. Several months later, it’s fair to say all such scruples had vanished. Federalist Society executive vice-president Leonard Leo has been advising Trump on judicial appointments (alongside those well-known legal scholars Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon). Meanwhile, ten days following the election, legal conservatives crowded cheek by jowl into the Federalist Society’s annual national lawyer’s convention, many of these attorneys suddenly, and quite miraculously, sensing an “unpresidented” duty, one they could not still, to take their talents to the the halls of power in Washington, DC.

Why should this craven and unprincipled capitulation to the excretions of power not surprise us? Originalists cleaving to historically arbitrary determinations about the meaning of denatured and “sacred” texts such as the Constitution (or the Bible) fixate on primitive and absolute moral imperatives that have little to do with the realities of freedom, justice, and equity within historically specific, embodied communities, and much to do with purging these imperfect societies of their impurities. An effort that of course requires access to the instruments and levers of power legal conservatives disingenuously claim they want to limit. As the stolid inhabitants of Middle Earth might say, these are a “fell” people.

Anyway. Here’s the essay.]

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once remarked in a dissent that many dangers visit the Court in sheep’s clothing, “but this wolf comes as a wolf.” So too with Scalia.

We can attribute much of the contemporary sclerosis in national government to the crouching wolf at the door, the successful arrival on the national stage of the legal conservative movement. In the last 30 years — lovingly midwifed by the Federalist Society and lavishly sustained by frankly astonishing levels of financial support from conservative foundations, think tanks, and business associations — legal conservatives have steadily assumed more power and influence in public life. All the while black-cloaking their political agenda behind allegedly non-political, purely intellectual commitments to the original meaning of foundation legal documents, particularly the Constitution. All the while bleating like sheep about their beleaguered position at law schools and on the bench.

But Scalia, their champion, cannot help himself. He opens his robe. Inside he is all wolf.

Court Jester

Scalia swaggers. He intimidates. He’s NinoColorful, quotable, and charismatic. Brilliant and hard-working. Voluble and entertaining. Irrepressible and fearless. He can do it all. He writes. He hunts. He sires nine children. His words are swords, ambuscades of righteous religiosity aimed at the nation’s legal and moral deviants, its corrupt parasitic entrails. He is a lawyer’s lawyer. He could argue either side of a case and win. The liberals love him. He’s so charming and amusing. He disarms them. They fear him. His withering diatribes and clever insults.

Scalia is the Court Jester. His influence, however, also illustrates how legal conservatives have seized the palisades of American constitutional theory. Conservatives of all stripes  – libertarians, advocates of judicial restraint, federalists, Christian conservatives, law & economics partisans, executive power hawks  – have set aside their differences to present a united front on the infallibility of the Constitution. Their methods  – Originalism and Textualism – have become their madness. Scalia contains within himself and symbolizes their unity of vision and purpose. Nothing less than the full recalibration of American political life. A two-pronged strategy. Control the courts. Seize legislative majorities. Limit the scope of judicial activity to preserve the political primacy of state and national legislatures.

Jesuitical Casuistry

With six Roman Catholics on the Supreme Court, with four of them (Scalia, Thomas, Alito, Roberts) theologically and intellectually and politically conservative as only well-educated Catholics can be, it is not unfair to characterize the legal conservative movement led by these justices as medieval in its intentions and Jesuitical in its methods. Here is where Scalia the wolf can instruct us on the impact of the broader flock of sheep in this legal movement, who are neither so brave nor so honest as Scalia in their self-justifications.

Scalia frankly attests to his opinions. “I’m a law-and-order guy. I mean, I confess I’m a social conservative, but it does not affect my views on cases.

Well, who knows if his opinions do or do not affect his legal judgments? It does not matter, because the brilliance of Constitutional Originalism and Textualist exegesis is that SCOTUS conservatives will generally achieve the political outcomes they want simply by punting tough policy issues back to the legislative bodies.

So yes, there is some Jesuitical casuistry at play here, and Scalia (who was first in class at his Jesuit high school and Jesuit college), Clarence Thomas (graduate of a Jesuit college), and other leading judicial conservatives are entirely mindful that their formal methods and substantive goals harmonize. Scalia frequently cites his commitment to the First Amendment as proof that he does not hew to a doctrinal line. He supports the free speech of flag burners! But this commitment is the exception that proves the rule, for Scalia also supports the free speech rights of abortion clinic protesters and corporate campaign contributors. The active component of his commitment may be less to the First Amendment itself as a principle, and more to the character of those whose interests advance under the protection of the First Amendment.

Not surprisingly, Scalia could not conceal his wolfishness when he declared at the inaugural meeting of the Federalist Society in 1982 that among the Founders he preferred Alexander Hamilton, the sexy bad boy of the Constitutional Convention, to its nerdy goody-goody, James Madison. Indeed, despite some disingenuous protestations to the contrary, legal conservatives generally love the vigorous, independent executive first envisioned by Hamilton, an executive that projects its power far and wide, and does not concern itself overly much with trivialities such as human rights, international law, legal transparency, and the more inconvenient amendments to the Constitution (we might appropriately consider SCOTUS conservatives to be the rightful inheritors of the philosophically conceived political realism originating with 13th-century Scottish philosopher Duns Scotus).

Sheepishly Slouching Towards Bethlehem

The Federalist Society is Scalia writ large and small. Writ large because the Federalist Society is the organizational expression of the legal conservative commitment, theologically conceived, to anchoring political life in the original, infallible meaning of the U.S. Constitution, which is their communion chalice, their Bible, their ark of the covenant. Writ small because the Federalist Society members, from founder Stephen Calabresi to political philosophers such as Charles Kesler, all gripped with a perpetual sense of aggrievement, mewl incessantly about liberal elites and an activist judiciary, while shamelessly (wolfishly) advancing their own profoundly reactionary intellectual agenda.

The Federalist Society initially conceived itself as a political alternative within law schools to the activist National Lawyers Guild, a bête noir of conservatives since its establishment in the 1930s. Truly, the comparisons now ring hollow. In 2013, the Federalist Society, with 60,000 members, reported revenues approaching $14 million and more than $8 million in net assets. Donors contributing more than $50,000 to the Federalist Society in 2013 included both Koch Brothers, Koch industries and (perhaps more surprisingly) Google and Microsoft. By contrast, the National Lawyers Guild, with 5,000 members, and which has never benefited from the largesse of the wealthy and powerful, in 2012 reported only $525,000 in revenue, and merely $100,000 in net assets.

Just as legal conservatism shelters under its umbrella a broad spectrum of intellectual approaches and philosophical commitments, Originalist and Textualist methods derive from a range of intellectual traditions centered around a few key academic institutions: the University of Chicago, the Claremont Institute, and more indirectly Princeton University, the Hoover Institution, UCLA, and George Mason University. Intellectual godfathers include political philosophers such as Leo StraussAllan BloomHarvey Mansfield, and (the recently departed) Harry Jaffa, all of whom have employed a species of magical thinking about foundation political texts in the Western philosophical canon, beginning with Plato and extending to Nietzsche. These classically trained philosophers — often categorized as Straussians — have also branched their carefully constructed tree of canonical works of Western political philosophy to encompass both European and American political thought. Straussian students of political philosophy have done much to vitalize the thoughts and writings of the founding fathers of the United States and Abraham Lincoln.

The “esoteric” method pioneered by Leo Strauss borrows heavily from medieval Church philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus, and burrows deeply into the meaning of foundation philosophical texts, which because of the conviction that they contain timeless truths about human nature and human relationships, obviate any need for historical situation. Straussians privilege text over context and universal truth over the thread of history, largely because historical and narrative understandings can lead to moral relativism. Additionally, Leo Strauss’s efforts to elucidate the influence of Plato through the course of the Middle Ages led him to the conclusion that the most precious truths contained in the Western philosophical canon were secret and encoded, and could only reveal themselves to the initiated acolyte or the most subtle student.

Legal conservatives have to some degree reaped the rewards of the spade work done by this older generation of academic political philosophers. The precepts of Originalism and Textualism with regard to constitutional studies reinforce the Straussian focus on foundation texts, hidden or subtle meanings, an ahistorical valorization of frozen language possessing timeless universality, and a morally driven concern for the dissipation associated with values relativism.

The legal conservative method, of course, leads otherwise very bright people deep into the darkened logical caves associated with biblical fundamentalism, in which scriptural exegetes hyperscrutinize sacred texts to locate hidden meanings anchored to divinely authored truths. Legal conservatives will writhe around the unanswerable and possibly irrelevant question: What did this clause of the Constitution mean to the Founders? One might reasonably ask in return: Why not closely inspect entrails?

You think there ought to be a right to abortion? No problem.

Well, actually, there is a problem. Justice Scalia asks and answers this question rhetorically by way of his capsule summation of Originalism and Textualism. Scalia’s answer being: “The Constitution says nothing about it. Create it the way most rights are created in a democratic society. Pass a law. And that law, unlike a Constitutional right to abortion created by a court, can compromise. A Constitution is not meant to facilitate change. It is meant to impede change, to make it difficult to change.

The problem is this. Legal conservatives attach a meta-meaning to the Constitution (it is designed to impede change), along with particular interpretations of its clauses, that elevate the importance of old-fashioned politics for securing non-universal rights (versus judicial remedies). However, the meta-meaning conflicts with an unfortunate reality. The political organs established by the Constitution have ceased to function. Moreover, we have ample evidence that this stalemate is exactly the political result favored by legal conservatives.

We have seen this before. In 1860. In 1936. Actually, we even witnessed this happen in 1786. The stalemate is called a Constitutional crisis. Under these circumstances, the principles that support the rule of law in the United States — equality, fairness, justice, transparency — principles enshrined within the preamble to the Constitution itself, begin to crack and crumble. Legal conservatives therefore face a dilemma. Is the Constitution a means? Or is it an end? They will tell us the Constitution is an end — a Procrustean bed as it were. But legal conservatives employ the Constitution as a means. To reconstruct politics itself, a breathtakingly radical, and risky, dissimulation that wagers all in the service of a hidebound medieval vision.

Seeking Sanity: An Idea for Saving the World

banksy-think-tank-2003We’ve all had fake news on our minds, but truly, “fake news” has always been with us. It’s just that no one has paid attention. We know now that social media and active online opinion communities have made it much easier for formerly marginal assholes like Alex Jones and Roger Stone (and Vladimir Putin) to sow fear and loathing in the public mind. But we need to be honest about the challenges in determining what news is fake and then deciding how to neutralize it. This focus on obliterating fakery endangers free speech and will do nothing to heal the profound social divisions in this country, and around the world. We need instead to reimagine and rebuild trusted information sources and stable discourse communities that can restore the epistemological foundations for political communication. This is not a trivial task, but we already have models that demonstrate how to create online communities that bring together diverse populations rather than sequestering them. Here are 10 bullets from this writer’s loaded gun (Banksy inspired) to outline what I am imagining.

  • House Divided. Whatever one’s politics might be, most people agree we’ve been through a hideous election cycle, and generally a hideous year for the nation, with no respite in sight. The divisions in our nation remind me (and many other people) of the nation’s collapse into two warring parties just prior to the Civil War.
  • Cognitive Chaos. We are used to a politics organized around a diffuse, but identifiable and bounded, center, with annoying/interesting fringe elements clustered at the rim of our political awareness. However, we now find ourselves with a center that has collapsed. We find evidence for this collapse and for polarization in the nation in the inability of people on each side of the divide to trust, communicate with, or even recognize as human their “enemies”.
  • Fake News and Trusted News. Leaving aside for the moment the obviously troubling issues of trolling and hacking and manipulation of social media, the question (for me, at least) is less how we get rid of “fake news” without destroying freedom of speech, and more how we rebuild sources of trusted news around which the political center can reform and reconstitute itself.
  • Seeking Alpha. The crowdsourced financial and investment research platform and online community, Seeking Alpha, gives us an incredible model for creating a durable, successful framework for responsibly sourcing information and managing commentary. With more than 5 million registered members and about 1.3 million unique visitors each month, Seeking Alpha is the leading (and very trusted) destination for investment research, ideas, news, and conversation.
  • Yahoo Finance. Before Seeking Alpha, Yahoo Finance was the dominant player in the online investment research and commentary space. And it was a sewer. Really not much different than what one finds on Breitbart (about which I have become something of an expert). The problem, of course, was the absence of clearly communicated and consistently enforced community standards. The other missing piece was the absence of an organized way to source and disseminate high quality research.
  • Seeking Alpha Again. The great achievement at Seeking Alpha (and these days, it seems greater than ever) was to build a high-quality crowd-sourced financial research platform paired with and supported by (remarkably) high-quality comment threads. From my perspective, the role of research editors and comment thread moderators at Seeking Alpha has made all the difference. The editorial team has simply required people to adhere to reasonable standards of investor relevance, topical specificity, and civil discourse. They’ve set clear expectations, and because the result benefits Seeking Alpha authors and readers alike (they’re often one and the same), the website has established trust between its editorial team and its audience, and between audience members themselves. So while one might quibble about the underlying political biases of the Seeking Alpha demographic (retired white guys and moneyed tech bros), which can lead to conversations or statements that often make me uncomfortable (or piss me off), the reality is that it is quite easy to overlook that stuff because the value of the service is so clear and the faith in its editorial integrity is so manifest.
  • Yahoo Finance Again. Of course, the Yahoo Finance message boards still exist, and there is now also the ridiculous StockTwits. But the reality is, these digital dregs matter far less because Seeking Alpha has established an alternative, and far more stable, center of gravity for investment research and investment conversation. It also matters that the organization’s editorial foundation also supports the Seeking Alpha business model (which is very successful).
  • Seeking Something Else (Politics, Policy, Virtue, Justice, Trust). I have fanatically persuaded myself that the Seeking Alpha editorial and business model would work incredibly well for creating a crowd-sourced, non-partisan policy and politics “think tank”. Obviously, the organization already has the technology and editorial infrastructure, so there could be a plug-and-play quality to creating this new adjunct political/policy platform. Political news is of course sizzling hot right now (traffic on Politico and FiveThirtyEight is through the roof), probably for the foreseeable future. But neither Politico or FiveThirtyEight (and probably no other “mainstream media” organization) has the capability or the vision to create a trusted community of policy and political junkies across the political and ideological spectrum.
  • The Crowd-Sourced Think Tank Model. My idea is to use/extend Seeking Alpha’s existing platform and editorial team to create a political analog to the Seeking Alpha community, one that would source bipartisan contributions on politics and policy, and filter them not by ideological purity, but by rigorous editorial standards. I think many policy professionals would contribute to this site for the same reason so many financial and investment advisers and members of the professional (and amateur) investment community do now on Seeking Alpha. “Political” Seeking Alpha would get support from policy wonks from academia, from government, from non-profits, from think-tanks. And by establishing and enforcing clear community standards, this politics, policy, and “real” news platform could organize really interesting and high-quality conversation threads about these research contributions.
  • My Perspective and My Commitment. This political/policy application of the Seeking Alpha model would be a terrific business that would build and reinforce the great work the organization has already done for investment research. But honestly, it may also be exactly what we need to save our nation politically (and in other ways). We need a new way to set standards for dissemination of news, ideas, and facts and we need to marginalize purveyors of cognitive chaos (agents of normalization, confusion, and misdirection) on sites such as Breitbart and Infowars and Fox News, which have achieved a frightening critical mass on the basis of a dark energy that has very little to do with free speech. At the same time, this political/policy version of Seeking Alpha could also deeply and constructively influence and repair the damaged relationship between “town and gown”, which threatens (along with many other things) to destroy higher education in the United States.

So a lot is at stake, but I am excited about the potential of this idea to reset the conversation about politics and policy in this country.

Scaling Risk and Political Decline – Or the Triumph of the Dark Lord Sauron

van-gogh-corridor-in-the-asylum-1889The arc of my two previous posts has been to explain the relevance to our modern condition of the jeremiad, the Puritan sermon form assailing human declension from the high and exacting standards of God and of the original demands placed upon a covenanted people. In my previous post, I introduced the ideas of Nassim Nicholas Taleb as the most powerful and relevant jeremiadic indictment of institutions, behavior, and practices of mind shaped in a post-Christian nation in which technology has displaced Jesus as the vehicle of our salvation or our damnation.

In this essay, I extend the prior threads of my argument from Wall Street and finance into Washington, DC and politics. Taleb does not delve into politics, perhaps because it is too akin to stepping into a sewer, perhaps because he knows that power truly sits in Wall Street, and so Washington is simply a waste of time. However, any narrative of decline cannot evade the instruments of government. Nor can it elide the underlying mechanics of political dysfunction.

Taleb’s central argument is that financial professionals on Wall Street benefit enormously from both a rigged (if explosively rigged) system and luck. However, these professionals are probably the least introspective class of people and so the ones most likely to assume their extraordinary compensation reflect their uniquely vital and irreplaceable brilliance.

Similarly, politicians (and a new phenomenon – the celebrity politician) also assume their fame validates their superiority, conveniently forgetting the massive correlation between luck and success. Donald Trump conveniently exemplifies how celebrities confuse effect (that they rise to national prominence) with cause (that they might not actually have anything meaningful to contribute to national discourse and their pheromones might more plausibly explain they reason they were “chosen”). Of course, politicians, like financial professionals, routinely take credit for events that have nothing to do with anything they have personally done.

Wealth inequalities have appreciably widened in the past 30 years. If democratic politics are designed to protect the weak from the powerful, in last 40 years, changes in politics have led to a social inversion, in which politics now protects the powerful from the weak. Income inequality is only the most prominent result of this inversion. Scaling risk (financial and social and environmental) is a less-noticed consequence of the servitude of the politicians to the powerful. But however we spin out these dark threads of regression, there is no doubt that the United States, with its dreams of freedom and reinvention, has now regressed unapologetically to the social assumptions of an ancien regime.

Politics and Scaling Risk

Finance is about money. Politics is about power. Neither can exist without the other. Together, they undermine democracy, inexorably and sometimes fatally. But democracy also cannot exist without both. For years, some semblance of social progress could occur – fitfully – because a basic legal-regulatory framework held the financial system in check. The term “banker hours” meant something through the 1970s. One reason bankers could tee off at 3:00 PM was that they did not have very much to do at work. Banking and securities laws dating from the 1930s limited the scope of banking activity, and the risks bankers could take.

For Taleb, limitations on things bankers could do – such limitations designed precisely to prevent risk that exceeded the goals of the system (those goals being, say, to promote home ownership or national markets for non-derivative equity and debt securities) – made our financial system robust. In simple short-hand, the Glass-Steagall Act (all 38 pages of it), separating commercial banking and investment banking functions, made our financial system robust. Boring, yes, but functional and stable and not inclined to explode with unforeseen, accelerating, and catastrophic consequences. Put another way, robustness is nothing more than insurance. Robustness is the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. With sufficient reserve requirements.

Starting in the 1970s, everything changed. We began to witness a 40-year assault of the wealthy on everyone else. Multiple, intertwined stories thread this narrative. (1) The destruction of labor unions wiped out one important countervailing source of resistance to the rampaging revolution of the rich. (2) The U.S. Chamber of Commerce emerged as a hidden, yet immensely powerful advocate for institutional deconstruction. (3) Unfettered campaign contributions generated 24/7/365 campaign cycles, with politicians entirely pocketed by major industries. (4) Financial and commercial deregulation and technological instrumentation (data-driven fund-raising; implementation of new technologies that supported high-speed trading; creation of synthetic securities; and globalization of capital flows) created risk without transparency or any capacity to manage unforeseen consequences. (5) Accumulation of mountains of wealth alongside massively scaling risk provided conditions for multi-trillion-dollar debt, the idea of the sovereign nation-state backed by the full faith and credit of its financial commitments in tatters, and an empathically chill winter upon us, the nation unable to support the basic survival needs of its poorest and most vulnerable citizens. (6) All enabled by the instrumentation of the God Technology and the meltdown of political institutions as meaningful, credible vehicles for balancing interests, harmonizing differences, and distributing rough justice. (7) Leaving us with blithe disregard, generally, for catastrophic risk in the fundamental choices we make: (a) To go to war to serve the interests of nation-building ideologues; (b) To deconstruct our market institutions so banks can bundle and sell spurious assets without limit; (c) To plunge catastrophically into debt at the expense of our children so we can bail out the wealthy and powerful; (d) To dismantle civil liberties (speech, privacy, and due process) enshrined in the Bill of Rights; (e) In sum, to put the interests of the first before those of the last.

Class warfare? Fuck yeah.

The End of the Utility Model of Financial Services

Let’s start with financial deregulation, which business elites systematically orchestrated beginning in the 1970s and which legitimized future deregulatory initiatives. And let’s make a point now that bears repeating without limit – there is absolutely no correlation between support for deregulation and political party affiliation. Lobbying, which is mostly about promoting deregulation (or tax dodging), is entirely equal opportunity when it comes to Congress. When it comes to campaign finance, Democrats belly up to the trough with gusto equal to that of any Republican.

So when regulation of basic industries fell, it fell hard because the voices defending regulation were alone in the forest. The deregulation of the thrift industry in the late 1970s and early 1980s created the precedent for the general collapse of regulatory oversight over the next 30 years. What is significant about the deregulation of the savings and loan industry was that an industry that had essentially functioned as a regulated utility with the goal of promoting housing and home ownership now became an industry about making money for the thrifts themselves.

Between 1980 and 1982, a menu of legislation transformed the thrift, creating the pyre that ultimately consumed them (the Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act of 1980, the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, and the Garn-St. Germain Depositary Institutions Act of 1982). The ultimate impact of this legislation was that by 1982, thrifts desperate to generate new revenues had the freedom to make consumer and commercial loans (not just mortgages), apply more lenient accounting rules, eliminate restrictions on the number of stockholders, issue credit cards, and invest up to 20 percent of their assets in commercial real estate. Most important, the legislation allowed thrifts to sell off their mortgage loans to investment banks.

We all know where that led. For the next chapter in this sordid tale, please read Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis, (in which we meet mortgage finance godfather, Lewis Ranieri and the fallen angel of Greenwich, Long-Term Capital Management’s own John Meriwether). Glass-Steagall had essentially encoded into our collective consciousness a utility model of financial services since 1933. Gramm-Leach-Bliley officially repealed the Act in 1999, but in truth it was essentially dead by 1980. In the absence of this utility model of regulation, with inmates such as Ranieri and Meriwether now guarding the asylum of financial services, risk spiraled out of control. Michael Lewis of course also chronicled the devastating outcomes of this financing risk spiral in The Big Short.

Enter the Dark Chamber

The repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1999 was a political act, orchestrated by many business actors, and emblematic of the transformation of politics from 1971 through 2016 (other evidence of this transformation – compare Glass-Steagall at 38 pages to the Dodd-Frank legislation, designed to stabilize the financial regime after 2008, at 2,300 pages). In an essay published several years ago in The Nation, Bill Moyers isolated and cast a spotlight on key elements of this political transformation by focusing on a hidden yet rapacious power grab by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. I will only summarize the key points of the narrative. You can read the entire essay for the gory details. But here’s the gist, staring with some lobbying numbers, and while the numbers date only from 1998, they distill the view at the end of the triumphant march, when, by 2008, the Chamber of Commerce had become entirely the master of its universe, the unchallenged hinge of power in Washington, DC.

In 1998, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce reported lobbying expenditures of $17 million, well behind the leading corporate lobbyist, tobacco company Brown & Williamson (at $24.9 million). These numbers remained essentially constant until 2002, when the USCC suddenly doubled its spending to more than $41 million, now exceeding by more than 100 percent the next most prolific lobbyist (the American Medical Association, at $15 million). In 2006, the USCC took another quantum leap, with lobbying expenditures of nearly $73 million (by contrast, number two lobbyist AT&T spent only $27 million in 2006).

Since 2008, with the election of Barack Obama to the presidency, the USCC has simply gone dope, with lobbying expenditures totaling more than $854 million, averaging $106 million annually (versus annual average spending of $37 million in the previous ten years). We can particularly witness the impact of recent USCC lobbying patterns during election years – where in each of the four election years since 2008, the USCC has spent more than the next four largest spenders combined (notably, even at peak annual spending levels in 2012, all of organized labor spent only about one-third of the money on lobbying as the USCC).

These lobbying numbers are like the credits rolling at the end of a scary movie. Since the early 1970s, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has systematically organized and executed long-range plans to seize control of U.S. political institutions. The USCC has waged a war of ideas via think tanks and legal foundations. They have saturated interest groups and elected officials with money. They have forged a visionary plan based on the promotion of an integrated, singular ideological agenda and propaganda machine, alongside the cultivation of massive networks of ties to leading figures in major political institutions – all with the aim of stripping government of its regulatory mandates and reconstructing unfettered corporate power as it existed prior to the New Deal. Don’t take my word for it. Go to their website. It will scare the shit out of you.

In this same period, wealthy individuals, led by former Nixon treasury secretary William Simon, began to funnel their wealth back into the political system, supporting right-wing institutions such as The Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, funding lobbying initiatives, and pouring money into campaign coffers. Most recently, as fulsomely described by Jane Mayer in the recently published Dark Money, the Koch Brothers have epitomized this private, secretive insinuation of individual power into public political institutions and processes.

The impact of oil fortunes, insurance fortunes, banking fortunes, manufacturing fortunes, agribusiness fortunes, defense technology fortunes, media fortunes, legal fortunes, and physician and hospital fortunes has generally and vigorously) permeated national political life throughout the past 40 years. With the Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court fully blessed these efforts to plump up politicians with cash like athletes juiced on steroids. Should it now surprise us when the politics we witness in Congress resembles nothing so much as roid rage?

As a result of this third party in the room – the lobbyist, the bundler, the guy you can’t escape from, who is constantly whispering in your ear, let us call him Grima Wormtongue – elected officials face profound structural impediments to governing – the need for money and the impact of lobbying. What this means is that the self-selection of candidates becomes a twisted, dysfunctional process, because the only people who would want, under these circumstances, to run for elected office and then serve in elected office, are all too often craven, self-serving, and delusional.

But it is too easy to dismiss Tea Party minions and Trump supporters – and those whom they elect – as village idiots and leave it at that. Too much remains unexplained regarding the pervasiveness of the corruption across party lines. The individuals themselves may not be personally corrupt – but they inhabit a system that requires them to accept corruption as the first principle of governance. So what was once – barely – an honorable profession, or one that at least allowed for the opportunity to aspire to honor and nobility – now leaves elected officials writhing on the floor like molten half-humanoids whose faces have been ripped off but who somehow have preserved the crease in their trousers and the knots in their ties.

Debased Speech and Scaling Risk

So that is where we are. The emergence of the Internet, social media, cable television, right-wing talk radio, and the collapse of print journalism in the last 25 years have catastrophically debased political language in the United States. Non-risk scaling politics depends on thoughtful, deliberative, coherent, meaningful speech. But none of our story-telling institutions promote this kind of measured, idea-driven discourse. Instead, we hurtle through a maelstrom of disjointed words and images, and speech as the currency of our conduct and our character collapses into incoherence.

How does the misuse of language and of speech contribute to the problem of scaling risk? Micro-blogging platform Twitter has become the communications vehicle of choice for nationally elected politicians, which alone is pretty embarrassing. The problem of debased speech extends well beyond Twitter, however. The election horse race is now the center of attention in politics, for the politicians as well as the voters. Legislation, itself, has been outsourced to the lobbyists (largely so the legislators can attend to their election campaigns)! We care about these endless campaigns. Far more than we care about the legislation churning through Congress that affects our lives in enormously more profound ways. We care because the campaigns have become the ultimate reality show.

But here’s the problem. Modern political campaigns are ultimately about words, and not just any words, but words that are lies. Almost by definition, campaigns are one of the most artfully constructed, filigreed latticework of falsehoods you can imagine. And when politicians and talk show hosts and Sunday morning television pundits and cash bundlers and lobbyists are all lying up a storm about matters of actual importance, risk scales like nobody’s business.

In the end, managing risk is about being honest and practicing skepticism and telling the truth to the best of one’s ability. If one wants to measure the health of our political and financial systems at any given time, all one has to do is ask this question. Are the institutions that are managing vast quantities of risk fundamentally committed to telling the truth?

Epilogue: Umberto Eco’s Antilibrary

Taleb famously wrote about Umberto Eco’s library of 30,000 books (he has a second with 20,000 books) and somewhat brutally herds those foolish enough to examine the library, or even the concept of a library of this enormity, into two groups – those who would ask Eco, somewhat dismissively, how many of these books he has read, and those who instinctively understand that the majesty of the library derives from the quantity of books Eco has purchased but not read. The difference, of course, is whether one adopts a functional and utilitarian approach to books or an ontological and spiritual approach.

Taleb doesn’t say this, but I will. The fundamental problem with both contemporary finance and politics is that no one reads. And to put a finer point on the proposition, risk would not scale inappropriately if people did read. And to extend this argument even further, technology does a lot to explain this absence of reading. Not just technology viewed as the impact of computers and cell phones and now tablets in our work lives (and personal lives). But technology as a kind of ray gun that annihilates ideas and thought. So we should read and cherish books as physical objects, not as lifeless digital decompressors of meaning.

Here is the political perspective on the problem of robust institutions. We need regulation to have robust institutions, and regulation requires thought, judicious review, a process of deliberation that benefits from shorter work days, less time campaigning and fund-raising, and more time given to active thought based on active reading. If I were to create more robust political institutions, the first rule I would make is to require each congressional office to reserve a room for a library. The second rule I would make would be to require each member of Congress, and their staff members, to reserve one day a week to read.