Monday, August 29, 2016

The Beepocalypse that Never Was - CCD, DDT, Alar, Saccharine, GMOs, Gamma Ray Bursts and other Catstrophes that Weren't or Won't Be

It was in the news off and on for the past decade, it is one of those things "everyone" knows is true, it is yet another sign of the impending environmental catastrophe, it is Colony Collapse Disorder, the sudden disappearance of large number of bees, and, it will spell the end of most bee pollinated plants, and perhaps change the face of the globe.

Except it won't.

The media loves the tale of the disappearing bees, the sudden deaths of tremendous numbers, the threat of extinction. The only problem is, it is not true. Or, rather, there is a grain of truth, but it is nothing like the story pushed by the media (and echoed by anti-pesticide activists). Nor is this akin to the questioning if Anthropogenic Global Warming, where there are a host of scientists willing to call skeptics "conspiracy theorists." In this case, the entire press tale rests on one lone scientist, not even an entomologist, and one study so bad no reputable journal would publish it, with the other side including virtually every entomologist, bee keeper and backed by every private and government study. Thus, it is not some fringe position to doubt CCD, it is fringe to believe in it as the media does.

Well, let us establish a few facts. First, the sudden disappearance of bees, or rather the discovery of empty hives, has gone on since at least the 19th century, as new articles record it as far back as the 1860s, and odds are good it probably goes back as far as human cohabitation with bees. Thus, CCD is nothing new, just a sensational new name for an old phenomenon. Nor is the cause "unknown". Yes, science cannot establish it with certainty, but most experts feel confident that it is the result of an outbreak of mites, especially as the recent (and now finished) occurrence matches well with such an outbreak.Nor is there any reason to assume the favorite villain pesticides (in this case neonicitinoids) are to blame, if anything they are better for bees than the more toxic substitutes used in Europe due to a kneejerk, and unsupported, ban on neonicitinoid pesticides. Other than the absurd study that started the media scare (which proved only massive doses of insecticides kill bees), every study shows minimal harm to, in a number of cases, some benefit, possibly due to killing those mites mentioned earlier. And finally, bees are not going extinct. In fact, their numbers are at a 20 year high. Granted, they are not at the levels of the 1940s and 1950s when US government subsidies resulted in a huge number of beehives, but for the post-subsidy era they are quite high. There have been some regional declines, but most have rebounded. In short, the population has fluctuated, but there is nothing even close to an extinction.

I mention all of this, as it matches up quite well with a number of other "crises" we have experienced, all of which resulted in media hysteria, and a few in government action, which later (or even at the time in one case) were shown to be the result of bad science, without a hint of justification.

Take DDT for example. The hype there was probably the most effective ever -- though the beepocalypse is coming close -- even today people seem to believe DDT is inordinately dangerous and cringe when hearing about lifting restrictions. But, the truth is, even when it was banned in 1970, the majority of scientists agreed there were minimal to no risks to humans, that environmental persistence was without substantial risk, and even the biggest threat touted about DDT, bird eggshell thinning, was due to environmental causes, and had no relationship to DDT. For that matter, even the very EPA that banned it admitted that the science was far from clear, but they felt the need to go through with the ban to "flex their muscles" and establish the EPA as a valid agency.

As a result, worldwide cases of malaria, which had fallen from 10s of million per year to tens of thousands (or sometimes less), rose into the millions once again, and we are even now seeing charities begging for mosquito netting to vainly try to stem the tide of malaria.

Alar was less harmful, but also had even less foundation. Again, a poorly designed study found harm, but in this case only in doses so massive that a human would need to drink tens of thousands of gallons of juice daily to match them, and yet the media, either from scientific illiteracy or desire for headlines, ignored the absurdly high dose required and presented the story as if Alar were a real threat to humans. Of course, there are countless issues with this. First, Alar is a hormone, a growth regulator, and so it is applied long before harvest and remains in the most minute of doses. Thus, the amount a human could conceivably consume would be infinitesimal. But that did not stop the researchers, or the press. And, being an example of both the much maligned "pesticides' (actually a growth regulator) and one of those "unnecessary chemicals" (as it only prevents fruits from dropping before ripe) it made for a good eco-narrative. no matter it wasn't true. The story was good enough that it pretty much killed Alar, despite there being no risk.

Saccharine is one of those rare cases where the hype actually might have been justified at the time, or at least had not yet been disproved, and, more amazing yet, when evidence pointed the opposite direction, regulators actually backed off, though, by that time, public perception had been greatly distorted.

The case against saccharine came in the form of a few studies indicating, when fed to rats, saccharine would cause bladder cancer. There were some problems with these early studies, they could only be reproduced in rats, not other test animals, and it seemed to occur only in female rats, but the results could be reproduced, so, in the spirit of "why remain calm when you can panic", the media and regulators jumped to the conclusion saccharine was a carcinogen, slapping on screaming warning labels, making it most unlikely people would buy products sweetened with saccharine.

Some time later, in the course of trying to reconcile the inconsistent results, researchers discovered that saccharine does cause cancer, in female rats, and only in female rats. Because female rats have an exceptionally high amount of protein in their urine, saccharine tends to crystallize, causing scoring to the bladder lining. Because rats are more prone to cancerous mutations than humans, the increased tissue damage increases cytogenesis which also increases the opportunities for cancer growth. As a result, in female rats, and only female rats, saccharine is a carcinogen.

Amazingly, the regulators backed off on claims of carcinogen status, and saccharine's name was cleared, at least in terms of warnings and regulations. Unfortunately, there is not much of a story for the media in reporting something is not dangerous, and so the story never really got much publicity, and much of the public still believes the original reports of saccharine's cancer causing properties.

Perhaps the most common target for contemporary fear mongers (other than vaccines and pesticides*) is GMOs. I have written extensively about this topic, in "GMO? So What?", "A Misleading 'Right to Know'", "GMO Revisited - As Well as Hormones,Soy, Phytoestrogens, and a Host of Other Food Scares", "'Better Safe Than Sorry' Usually Leaves Us Even More Sorry, And Much Less Safe", ""Better Safe Than Sorry" Revisited", "Why 'Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst' is Bad Policy", "A Bit of Support From the Skeptics" and "A Thought on Natural and Artificial", so I will not go into great detail here, but it is worth looking at the facts.

There is no difference between genetic modification done in a lab and that done by selective breeding, or caused by mutations or trans-species genetic donation in the wild. There is no record of any harm done by GMOs that is not akin to that done by unmodified foods. In fact, selective breeding of potatoes and celery have caused more problems than are recorded for GMOs.

But that has not stopped the press from pushing these unfounded worries, talking portentously of possible problems that have no basis in reality. Thanks to the same absurd beliefs behind the "organic" movement, the belief that somehow things are better if "natural"***, we are now subject to, not just tales of doom, but tales of doom founded on nothing but the fact a given activist can imagine some outcome total unrelated to real life probabilities. And on this basis, the government has considered pointless labeling laws, or possibly even bans. It boggles the mind.

Which brings me to my last subject for today, not a crisis that wasn't, but one that will never be.

For a time, there was a fascination on YouTube and internet "click bait" sites with lists of ways the Earth could "be destroyed". Among these, one of the most popular was a "Gamma Ray Burst". Thanks to these lists, and many, many people with a small understanding of astronomy and an inordinate fear of radiation (along with a love of sensational tales), it has become "common knowledge" that such bursts are capable of destroying all life on Earth, boiling off seas, destroying the atmosphere and so on. Ask on any internet answer site what will happen, and (except for one or two people who know how to look up citations and present more sensible replies) you will be flooded with dire tales -- none of which agree with each other, but no one seems to mind that detail. From boiling oceans to radiation killing all life, to global cooling and ice ages, acid rain, ozone destruction, the destruction of the lithosphere and to the formation of nitrogen compounds which are powerful enough for "one molecule to destroy a mile of ozone"**, there is apparently no limit to the potential harm gamma ray bursts can do.

Well, unless you read the scientists. Yes, there is a small minority blaming such a burst for an extinction event, but obviously they do not believe it boiled off oceans or killed all life, so even this minority has a realistic view of the power of such a burst, seeing it as responsible for changes in environment leading to extinction. Excluding that group, most scientists believe a gamma ray burst, aside from being very rare and incredibly unlikely to strike Earth, would, if the unlikely happens, largely be attenuated by the atmosphere, with the negative effects mostly limited to chemical reactions in the ozone.

But, never let it be said the internet will let reality destroy a good story. Despite the fact the internet "experts" predict wildly different and mutually exclusive outcomes, despite the fact there is zero scientific support, despite the often too credulous Wikipedia even rejecting the scare stories****, the tale remains that a gamma ray burst will wipe out all life. And the public, by and large, believes the internet hype, not the science.

No doubt, there are many other examples I could give, in most cases pushed by a media more interested in sensational headlines than accuracy, and supported by interested parties from environmentalists, to anti-pesticide crusaders, to anti-vaccination campaigners, to liability lawyers and others, all with an agenda which finds the hype agreeable. It seems, for whatever reason, our current generation has become incredibly risk averse, and, thanks to this propensity, has come to accept that even the most remote risk, demonstrated by even the most flimsy evidence, is enough to support action. As I said elsewhere, they have adopted the maxim "better safe than sorry", but in such a way that they simply cannot accept even the most unlikely threat.

I shall likely revisit this topic in the future, perhaps looking at it in some other contexts, as it is not just environmental risks that are treated in this manner. In fact, many bad political ideas are founded upon the quest to eliminate all risk of hardship. From the Federal Reserve to Social Security to Medicare/Medicaid, much of our political environment is shaped by political analogues to these environmental and dietary worries.

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* It is difficult to say whether vaccines, pesticides or GMOs top the list of scare mongers' bogeymen. Thimerosal was in vogue for a while, and since it was used in vaccines, the anti-vaccination campaign gained some prominence. And the organics movement never tires of reciting a litany of dubious claims against pesticides, which are often echoed by credulous reporters and YouTube videos. On the other hand, GMOs probably have been the object of the most absurd and unfounded claims, mainly because most of the fear is founded on lack of knowledge, giving professional worries free rein to come up with absurd potential risks. On the other hand, thanks to internet videos, chain emails and gullible reporters, there is hardly a modern baseless worry -- from the "risks" of cola to the "danger" of "pink slime" -- that has not been repeated ad nauseam. And, sadly, we also seem to live in a credulous age, where the vast majority has adopted a distorted belief in "better safe than sorry", giving even the most far fetched fear mongering far too much credit with the public (and sometimes law makers). (Cf ""Better Safe Than Sorry" Usually Leaves Us Even More Sorry, And Much Less Safe".)

** Besides the fact that a mile is not a unit of volume, and thus meaningless here, I cannot imagine a compound capable of the feat this implies. Even assuming it means an area one mile thick, with a much smaller surface area, one molecule destroying that much ozone goes far beyond "improbable". I suppose if it were a catalyst, but that would require some other agent, so it still makes no sense. (And one molecule of a catalyst still seems far too little for such a massive amount of gas.)

*** "Natural" is like "fair" a term with no meaning, which can be made to suit whatever purpose the speaker wants. See "The Most Misleading Word", "Luxury and Necessity", "Res Ipsa Loquitur", "A Question of Fairness", "Protean Terminology", "One More Meaningless Word and Its Consequences", "Confucius, Aedes Aegypti, Pluto, Sub-Species, Conservatives and Republicans", "Misunderstanding Arbitrary Definitions", "Weasel Words and Hollow Words", "Semantic Games", "Misleading Terminology", "Smoking Versus Sex -- Want and Need Take Two", "Can We Ban the Word 'Scarce'?", "Government by Emotion" and "Selfishness as Reason - 'Wants', 'Needs', 'Fairness' and Other Guises for Arbitrary Decisions".

**** I am no fan of Wikipedia, but in this case it does get the science right, and refuses, quite rightly, to accept citations of unfounded internet scare stories. If only it were so sensible in other cases. For a discussion of my complaints about Wikipedia see "Misplaced Emphasis", "A Wikipedia Amusement", "Revisionism Strikes Again", "The Failure of Wikipedia", "Wikipedia?", "Wikipedia Absurdity, Or How To Create Your Own Citation", "Stop Confusing Me With The Facts!", "Mystery Quotes", "Opinion Masquerading as Fact", "Endangered Species", "Some Libertarian Analogies", "Proof Positive", "Revealing Too Much", "Why People Don't Take Academics Seriously", "Deceiving Themselves?", "A Question About Language", "Roman Legions, Hopscotch, Killer Gays, 'Got AIDS Yet', WMDs and a 'Damn Piece of Paper'", "Grind Those Axes, Wiki Editors!", "The Power of Myth on the Internet",  "Why I Won't Be Contributing to Wikipedia", "The Tragedy of the Creative Commons", "A Near Perfect Definition", "The Taxonomy of Trivia", "Backwards Thinking and the Number of the Beast" and "Wikipedia, Beggars, Stray Dogs and Prostitutes".

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POSTSCRIPT

It is interesting that those writing criticism of these worries often treat those of us who are dubious of the most extreme AGW claims as "conspiracy nuts", even though the more extreme AGW claims are closer to these sky is falling scenarios than valid science. But then again, people also lump together all criticism --  from those of us who think the models use excessive feedback, or base their findings on poorly chosen temperature proxies, to those who believe the entire AGW theory is a political plot -- as if it were the same, which is an effective way to silence dissent, but not good science. For example, is it "conspiracy theory" to point out the M & M "hockey stick" chart from the IPCC report is missing both the Medieval Warm Period and Little Ice Age? Or that M & M still will not reveal their full methodology or the way they "adjusted" their sources to get their results? It is remarkably unfair to treat all criticism as if it were the most extreme version. But that is a topic for another essay. (For a brief synopsis of my concerns, see the postscript to "Both Sides Now".)

Misunderstanding Conservatives

When I tell people I am conservative, or favor laissez-faire policies, the most common reaction is to assume that the listener now knows everything about my beliefs. And it is often the most absurd and extreme caricature one could imagine. Without fail, it is assumed that I am in favor of any policy they imagine favors "big business", that I want workers to toil for a pittance, that I think only the rich should have health care and education and luxuries, that I endorse discrimination against women and minorities*, and that I believe the state should always act as big business wishes.

In one way, this is the fault of a quite partisan media. Serving at many times as a mouthpiece of the left, the media has reinforced the belief that the right is made up of Snidely Whiplash characters, and that only those who endorse liberalism cares about anyone earning less than seven figures.

However, that caricature is not the whole of the story, there are also the mistaken beliefs that support it. First, the idea that the government must be "for" some particular class or group. This is at the root of the claims by so many politicians to "support the middle class". They know the public and cannot claim to be for equality, they must claim some group they intend to become the patron of, and so, they choose the protean "middle class", to avoid claims of being too far left or right. (Cf "The Oh So Useful Middle Class".) Similarly, this belief is in evidence when one says he opposes affirmative action and is damned for being "for whites". You see, in the mind of many, you need to choose sides, so if you dislike discrimination in favor of blacks, you must favor discrimination for whites. Equal treatment is simply unthinkable.

There is also the second problem, the belief in the omnipotence of government, and, more than that, the belief it not only can solve any problem, but that it is right and proper it do so. In other words, the belief that the government must involve itself in every issue, that every problem must be given a government solution. This belief tends to reinforce the one previously mentioned, as the government's omnipresence means it also must continually choose sides, and thus, in the end, the government is nothing but a perpetual tug of war between competing pressure groups.

This is what, in the long run, leads to the mistaken beliefs I described above. When a conservative opposes government action, suggests a particular problem is not one the state should solve, it is not taken as an honest sentiment, but rather a declaration of one's allegiance, and thus one must oppose those who nominally benefit from the government intrusion.

However, this is a terrible mistake, the outcome of what I call the "Swiss Army Knife theory of government". This is the belief the state can solve every problem, and not just solve, but provide the best possible solution, making government intrusion not only proper, not just right, but necessary. This theory lies at the root of many of our contemporary issues**, but for the moment let us limit ourselves to the one with which I opened. And, to illustrate why it is such a mistaken belief, allow me to put forth a hypothetical situation.

Let us suppose you want to end cancer, or at least reduce the incidence. Having been given unlimited power over the state, you decide the best solution is the bring the massive power and wealth of the state to bear on the problem. Obviously you can fund health care and research and medical schools and so on***, but you want something with more immediate results. Even with all the best medicine available and best care, people still fail to take care of themselves and often do not take advantage of treatments. Your first thought is to arrest those who develop cancer, as a means to both encourage people to take preventative measures, and to ensure proper treatment, but you decide that may be a bit too radical. (But you do keep it as Plan B.) Instead, you decide to mandate treatment for those diagnosed. You pass laws mandating that those who have cancer must follow the directions of their physician or face fines and coerced treatment. It still seems harsh, but you think it is the only way to ensure people really listen to medical advice.

Now, if this were really the case, and I were to tell you I thought your plan wrongheaded, that the state is the wrong tool to use to fight cancer, and even as far as state solutions go, using the police powers is even worse than other answers, what would that say about me? Would it prove I love cancer and want to see it spread? Or would it simply mean I disagree over the means with which we should solve these problems? In fact, though we disagree about a specific solution, is it not likely we both have the same end goals in mind?

So, why is it when I suggest the elimination of public schooling that people tell me I must want only the rich to go to school? Even when I point out the huge cost of public schools, the tremendous inefficiency, the fact that, were that money left in parents' hands it would likely fund most education, no one seems to understand? Even when I argue there is nothing preventing private charity, or that such charity exists even today with many private schools giving full or part tuition to poor students, no one sees how the poor could afford school? Why, despite pointing out that many nominally poor people find money for cars, televisions, computers, new clothes, phones,  other consumer electronics, vacations and other luxuries, they still think the poor are naked, starving destitute serfs from medieval Europe and not the "relatively poor" of the modern era, who would be middle class or better in many other nations. And so, no matter how much I explain these facts, point out that I believe eliminating public schools will in no way prevent widespread, even universal, education,I am still accused of wanting the poor to remain ignorant.

In other words, in these cases, even should I say I share the same goals, but differ over means, no one will listen. The assumption is that only the liberal, or big government, solution will work, and any opposition must mean one opposes the goal. (Cf "Of Wheat and Doctors".)

As I said elsewhere, it is not anything new. Those who opposed the grain dole in ancient Rome were thought to want the poor to starve, as no one could conceive of a non-government answer, even though historical experience (and the example of countless other cities even in the Roman era) showed it was quite possible. And the same is true here. The state solution, even though only a century old or less in many cases, is seen as the only possibility. The fact that there was a past where such solutions did not exist is dismissed as a "different time"**** and the assumption is made to oppose the present answer is to oppose the beneficiaries.

Which does explain, in part at least, why conservatives are so often seen in such absurd caricature. If we oppose welfare, it is not because we think it harmful, but because we want people to be destitute. If we oppose government funded health care, it is not because we think private charity a better remedy, but because we want the old and poor dying in the streets. If we oppose any of the countless government solutions, it is not a disagreement over means, but a sign of villainy.(cf "Most Absurd Debate Since ... ")

So, what is the answer? Honestly, I am not sure. Obviously, any answer is going to be slow, and rough, going. People have been sold on the Swiss Army Knife of Government for a long time, and have bought into it quite heartily. But that is precisely what we must destroy. Of course, no one wants to hear when a problems trikes that the state should not do anything, that you are on your own, so I suppose it is best to make our case, not when debating specific issues, as then it may seem that we truly are the villains of the piece, even if our arguments are correct. Instead, when things are good, and no problems loom, we must repeat, time and again, the argument that the state is not the solution to every ill, it is no panacea, and often can make things worse, not better. It will be a hard sell, it will take a lot of patience and a long time, but if we keep making our case, if we offer examples, and find those cases that prove our point, eventually we may begin to win over some new believers, and, with a little more work, maybe even change a few policies here and there, giving us more cases to which we can point to prove our point.

It will not be easy, or quick, it will be quiet, anonymous, tedious work, but, as I said elsewhere, the goal is the most noble, and so, though we likely will never be acclaimed as heroes for our efforts, is it not still worthwhile to spend our lives in such a cause?


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* Sadly, due to Trump's seizure of the GOP, part of which involved the party largely replacing small government, federalist conservatives with Trump's nationalist, protectionist and even racist followers, many among the general public who confuse "Republican" with "conservative" have accepted the claims by racists and nationalists that they are "real conservatives" and the image of conservatism has been terribly tainted. See "The Problem With the Big Tent", "Trump, Obama, Cults and Authoritarianism", "What Does Not Kill You..." and "The Trouble With Tough Talk".

** See "Social Issues and the Role of Government", "Caution, Not Fear", "There Are Other Solutions", "The Free Market Solution", "Skewed Perspective , or, How Big Government Becomes Inevitable", "Why I Reject Compassionate Conservatism", "Every Kid Likes Hotdogs", "The Myths and Realities of Strict Construction"  and "The State of Nature and Man's Rights".

*** I am not saying these are good ideas, or harmless, but being what is currently done, they are familiar solutions, so likely to be enacted by anyone. I would argue they are not good ideas, but proving as much is too time consuming for this essay. See "The Case for Small Government" for a general argument.

**** One of the most common arguments of this form is that against the gold standard. It is often dismissed, despite all evidence, as an "anachronism". I can point out that, despite being sold as ending depressions, the Federal Reserve presided over our worst collapse, and what appears to be a continually accelerating cycle of boom and bust, and yet the only reply will be "it won't work today", offered without proof, as a self-evident truth. See "Stupid Quote of the Day (January 7, 2012)", "Bad Economics Part 19", "Why Gold?", "The Gold Question, Not "Why?" But "When?"", "Fiscal Discipline" and "In A Nutshell".


Sunday, August 28, 2016

Nice to Get Confirmation, Again

In a number of essays ("Statistical Artifacts", "Confirmation", "Twice in a Row", "Shocking Numbers", ""Better Safe Than Sorry" Usually Leaves Us Even More Sorry, And Much Less Safe", "Nice to Get Support" ) I argued that the "sudden increase" in autism in the US and elsewhere was not due to Thimerosal, or GMO foods or any of the other usual suspects. Rather, I argued it was a statistic artifact caused by a combination of greater frequency of screening and a broader definition now that all autism-like illnesses were grouped into one ailment. Well, guess what? Researchers have reached the same conclusion! So, I have suddenly gone form being an "anti-science crank" to a visionary! I am just waiting for the day people admit the M&M "hockey stick" is hopelessly flawed and computer models of AGW terribly inadequate, and I can stop being a "crank" on that topic as well.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Pre-Luddite Luddites

I was reading my old post "Against the Neo-Luddites and Anti-Automation Rhetoric" when it struck me that the Luddite error, though largely seen as a creation of the industrial revolution, actually predates that event, and by a number of centuries. In a number of sources from the ancient world, especially from the late Roman republic and early Empire, one heard a variation of the Luddite claim. In this case, not that machinery would destroy jobs, but rather that the proliferation of slaves would make free men, especially farmers, unemployed.

It is interesting to see this, as it is a combination of modern fears, the fear of imported labor combined with the fear of automation. But, since those two are related, and based on the same fallacy -- that there is a limited amount of "work" and if something removes some of that pool of jobs, people will be unemployed -- I suppose it is inevitable that we would see the two together.

Of course, as always, the fear was unfounded*. Rome suffered a number of economic problems -- mostly in the later Empire from price fixing and other meddling, though even the early empire had issues with the grain dole -- but there was no mass unemployment of farmers or craftsmen and, if anything, Rome suffered from deficits of grain, not surpluses, as one would expect if slaves were providing too much labor.

But, of course, none of this helped mankind learn the lesson that labor is in infinite demand, and that no matter how much labor is available uses can be found for it. Rather, we see the same error again and again, from the Luddites to the protestors against electrical machinery, against automation, against computer and robotics, against world trade, again immigration** and so on.

Eventually, perhaps, the majority of mankind will figure this out, but until then, I have a feeling we will be making this argument many times, trying to show that more labor enriches man, rather than impoverishes him.

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* People often point to the growth of massive slave run estates and the unemployed of Rome as signs of unemployment, but neither was quite what it seemed. The consolidation of estates happened because the cost of land rose, allowing small holders to sell out in Italy and either move to a city, or buy better land farther from Rome. The wealthy simply bought out small holders, and they changed location, they did not suddenly become unemployed. As far as Rome is concerned, yes there were those who did not work, but they existed precisely because of the grain dole, they could live without work. As always, you get the unemployment you pay for.

** I am speaking entirely about immigration opposition based on job loss. (See "Cheap Labor Does Not Just Favor Big Business") There are any number of other objections, unrelated to jobs. I am not a supporter of most of these arguments, as I will explain in a future essay, believing most cultural objections are not supported by historical evidence or reason, for example. There are a few valid objections to specific aspects of immigration, and one or two reason our current environment may make some immigration hazardous, but  that is a complicated topic and will have to wait until I write an essay on the topic to examine it in detail.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Trump, Obama, Cults and Authoritarianism

NOTE: I am afraid in some ways, this post says nothing new. Much of what I am about to say was already said in "The Trump Cult", "A Quick Check In", "A Brief Thought on Trump","Nice to Get Confirmation", "Odds and Ends Concerning Trump", "The Candidate as Inkblot", "The Obama Hangover" and "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism". On the other hand, while much of the content may be the same, in none of those essays do I tie together all of those seemingly unrelated subjects. So, please bear with me through the early parts of this essay. If you read those earlier posts, some of it may seem a bit too familiar, but trust me, the rest of it is something new, and I hope shall prove worth reading through those earlier parts.

In 2008, even before the general election, while Barack Obama was campaigning against Hillary Clinton and a few lesser lights (most of whom did not make it to February), I pointed out that there was something a bit peculiar about his campaign. Rather than making any specific claims, he seemed to be speaking entirely in the most vague of generalities. Not that such a thing is unusual for politicians, ambiguity is essential when trying to cater to a group with disparate desires and, as is the case with most politicians, you are too afraid to honestly tell some they won't get everything they desire. But Obama was unusual in that his generalities were not used to spackle over gaps in his platform, or dodge thorny issues, they formed almost the entirety of his platform. And where they did not, such as his stand on military action in Iraq, he took the novel approach of taking multiple, contradictory stands. In short, he seemed to have absolutely no positions.

What was interesting about this was, instead of what one would expect -- disgust with a man so manipulative he won't say what he believes -- Obama seemed to be charming his way to a victory, with his die hard fans reading into his nebulous phrases their own beliefs, allowing him to seem to be precisely what each wanted, even if they desired very different things. In other words, he used a mix of charm, fanaticism (on the part of his followers) and nebulous or contradictory statements to allow him to seem the perfect candidate to a large number of true believers. It was not unique, as I pointed out at the time many cults seemed to run on similar principles, but for a candidate of a major political party, it was unprecedented*.

At least until 2016. Enter Donald Trump.

Now, Trump is not as charismatic as Obama, and the results can be seen in his poll numbers, but never the less, he is using a vary similar approach. Oh, he is not doing exactly the same thing. He is not trying Obama's original tactic of nebulous answers, instead he is presenting strongly word, forcefully asserted position, which he immediately contradicts with equally forceful pronouncements about a contradictory stand. And another. And sometimes a fourth or even more. In short, he is taking as many positions as he needs on each topic, allowing those who want to find a savior in him to hear what they need to hear.

And it is working, at least for some. Not enough to win, it appears, but he definitely has won over a hard core of die hard followers, followers who are not troubled by contradictory statements, or by his periodic renunciations of points they hold dear. Somehow, they have been won over and their faith is unshakable.

The die hard Trump follower is a bit different than the Obama fan in 2008.

Obama's fans were basically charmed in advance, they wanted to love him, for whatever reason. They were already sold on the idea that he would make a good president. His nebulous statements did not win them over, they just gave them the hook they needed to convince themselves of what they already wanted. They filled in the blanks for Obama because they already wanted to support him.

Trump worked a bit differently. There may have been some sold on him in advance, but for most die hard fans, it was a combination of his stands and his bullying, abusive presentation that convinced them he was the strong man champion they thought was needed to win. And thus, they took those words to heart, and imagined that whatever they believed, Trump must believe too. Each of them imagined he knew the "real Donald Trump" and anything Trump said that contradicted their own beliefs was "just politics", something he "had to say" for other voters, and they imagined he only really meant whatever he said that matched their own beliefs. As with the Obama followers, it did not matter that each follower imagined the "real" beliefs of the candidate to be something different, often contradicting what others imagined them to be. They rarely discussed what they imagined he really believed. They simply talked about how great he was, how strong, how he was going to fix things and make the world right again.

And, in that regard, both sets of the fans were the same. Both were disappointed people, who saw the candidate as a savior.

In 2008, the Democrats were in a bit of a funk. They had lost the last two elections to a man they imagined was an idiot. And in both races the results had been contested with allegations of voter fraud, racism at the polls and a host of other issues. The economy was in mediocre shape, and, despite doing well in 2006 congressional elections, the Democrats still saw little improvement in things (by their lights), and they were in a despondent mood. They were worried that once again they were going to lose the presidency in a close race, and their congressional victories would be meaningless. And, added to all of this, the Democrats, especially younger Democrats, a more prone than conservatives to see politics in terms of impending catastrophe and the need for a dramatic, revolutionary solution**, and thus are more often seeking a savior with a simple, immediate solution. And thus, Obama came at the right time, in the right circumstances. Being potentially the first black president only added to his public image as the savior of the left. And, as a result, there were countless people ready to buy into his empty statements and form what I described at the time as the Obama cult.

Similar circumstances surround the 2016 election. The Democrats have won the past two elections, while the Republican opposition has been largely ineffective and even inert, not just failing to oppose Obama in many cases, but not even offering opposition. And recent elections must seems to many on the right as the flip side of the 2008 situation for the left. Between ACORN and others being accused of voter fraud, accusations of excluding military ballots from overseas and other irregularities, the right is quite worried some races may be stolen. Add to that an economic situation little improved from 2008, the government growth in terms of ObamaCare, gay marriage and other movements leftward, and the right seems quite similarly positioned as the left in 2008. On top of that, there have been a number on the right offering dismal prognostication since 2008. That increased immigration would keep any Republicans from winning in 2012 (or 2016), that Obama would seize all guns, Obama would declare martial law and stop the elections and so on. And finally, the certain nominee being Hillary Clinton definitely did not help. Much despised on the right, the fear that she would be elected made the race seem all the more urgent, with the more hysterical claiming a Clinton victory would destroy America.

Thus, as for the left in 2008, in 2016 some on the right were ready for a savior. Someone who would not behave like most elected Republicans. A man who would not back down from the left. And thus, Trump;s "tough talk" and crude behavior made him seem, at least to a select group, as the obvious choice for that savior. And thus, as with Obama's cult, the Trump cult was born***.


What makes this interesting is that this mindset, the belief one knows the "real" message and can safely ignore the rest, as it is just "talk", is not just part of cults, though they obviously also rely on this mindset to overcome the contradictions between the leader's claims and his actions, but it is also part of the more common, everyday thought processes of those who embrace authoritarian philosophies.

VonMises described socialism**** in terms of petty resentments, and to a degree he is right, but there is something even more prominent, the idea that the individual in question, the believer, knows exactly how things should run. After all, socialism, for all the talk of scientific systems and the like, is a completely arbitrary system. How many shoes to make? Who should get how much bread? is it wheat or white? Plant apples or pears? All of these are decided by the market in a free economy, but in an authoritarian system they must simply be plucked out of thin air. And thus, in every socialist system, in the end, the whole edifice rests on the belief that the planners know better than the market.

However, before they come to power, they certainly will not admit to this arbitrary source of all planning decisions, and so they speak in generalities about scientific planning and shortcomings of the free market and the superiority of the people's will and so on. And the followers, because they cannot easily find any concrete meaning for these words, much like Obama and Trump followers, imagine that these vague words describe the ideal system they would implement. In short, as I said in "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism", every supporter of socialism or communism or fascism or whatever, imagines the state, when in power, would follow the "common sense" course, by which he means the course that he would follow if in power. Every supporter believes the future dictator will rule as he would would, which is why so many long time supporters of revolutions end up so surprised and disillusioned when the revolution finally comes. And also why so many old supporters end up jailed or executed. They find out a little too late the revolution was not about to follow the beliefs they thought.

I suppose it makes sense, in a way. If vague promises or contradictions were taken at face value, then no one would support the person making them. I certainly would not buy a car on the promise it was "a really nice car" with no specific details, yet people accept presidents and congressmen all the time on promises no less nebulous. But why? Because they do what we described here, they project their beliefs onto the candidate, hear in his vague or contradictory words what they want to hear. Maybe because they are frustrated, having been disappointed and desperate to find a candidate they can support. Maybe they are panicked (as with those who fear Clinton too much in this race) and cannot believe there is no answer, and so they grasp at straws to think there is hope. Whatever the reason, they essentially suspend their reason for a time, do not evaluate what they are hearing by rules they normally use, and instead allow themselves to hear what they hope, not what is actually said. And, having done so, they are hooked, and they come to believe, they imagine they know the candidate as he really is, and thus they join the cult.

Oh, it is not that surprising. We all do this in some aspects of our lives. Imagine a pretty girl is nicer or smarter than she really is because we like her looks. We pretend that troubling knocking from our car engine is perfectly normal since we don't want to have another bill. We do it all the time, we try to see or hear what we want rather than what is there. But, in most cases, we do it for a short time, and we eventually force ourselves to see what is really there.

The problem with cults, be they political like Obama and Trump, or religious or otherwise, is, once the individual comes to believe, he creates a world where nothing can shake his beliefs. As he defines reality solely in terms of those beliefs, and is often reinforced by others, he loses all those cues that would cause us, in other circumstances, to come to our senses, and thus, unless he makes a herculean effort, he will not likely break free of his confused beliefs. And we are seeing this today with the Trump supporters. No matter what he says, no matter what he does, they believe he is really going to do certain things, even as he says clearly he is not. Likewise, no matter the polls, they are convinced he will win. Just like that first rush when you lie yourself into falling in love with the wrong person, they are enamored with Trump. Unfortunately, unlike bad romances, where many outcomes are likely to bring us back to reality, most Trump fanciers (like most true believers of authoritarian philosophies) have so deluded themselves, there is little left to point out the truth to them.

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* Unfortunately, I made a tremendous mistake in predicting the outcome of the 2008 election. I anticipated ("The Obama Hangover") that Obama would win the nomination, but thought, even if the press continued to give him a pass, in the debates, or in opposition ads, he would be called out to elaborate upon his vague positions, and in giving them concrete form he would alienate those who had read different meanings into them. Unfortunately, his opponents never did call him out, nor did the press, so we never saw what would have happened. Though, watching the Trump fans in the current election, it is possible even if he had been forced to give details, his fans may have still heard what they wanted to hear and not abandoned him despite any differences between their assumptions and his statements.

** As I shall mention, there are certain people on the right given to revolutionary fantasies and fears of impending doom, but they are less common than their counterparts on the left. Though, it does it seem the right is becoming more and more inclined to the same sort of hysteria that is frequently found on the left. See "Trump and the Myth of the Outsider", "All Life in a Day, or, How Our Mistaken View of History Distorts Our Understanding of Events", "Catastrophic Thinking, The Political, Economic and Social Impact of Seeing History in the Superlative", "Look Out It's the End Times!", "Prelude to a Future Essay on Heroic Ethics and Romanticism, "Our Unique Age, A Tempting Falsehood", "The Sky Is Falling! Again! Really! We Mean It This Time!", "Against the Neo-Luddites and Anti-Automation Rhetoric", "Both Sides Now", "Technophobes and Conservatives -- The Risk of Assumptions", "The Futility of Blame", "Misguided, Deceptive or Evil?", "Tyranny Without Tyrants", "Three Versions of Evil and the Confusion They Cause", "Life Without Villains", "Enemies Into Villains", "Rethinking My Earlier Position", "A Small Digression", "The "Liberal Bubble" Becomes Universal", "In Defense of Civil Debate"and "Missionary Zeal and Human Discord".

*** As I discussed in "The Problem With the Big Tent", there was a second element at work. The Republican "big tent" was growing uncomfortable for many. Being split between a number of groups, including libertarian/federalist/small government/free market types, social conservatives of varying stripes and nationalist/protectionist/paleocon and even sometime racist groups, there had been an ongoing struggle over what group was truly "conservative" and who the GOP represented. The nationalist/protectionist/populist wing had long been out of favor, and this may have contributed to their fears of impending doom. If they did not soon win a major victory (eg had Huckabee wont he nomination), they were likely to be a permanent minority within the party. Thus, latching on to Trump's populist/protectionist message -- as well as his "alt right" racist supporters who he half-covertly embraced -- allowed them an opportunity to seize control and redefine the GOP and the public image of conservatism. (Though I predict this will have dire results. See "What Does Not Kill You..." .)

**** I am using the term "socialism", but the conversation applies to all forms of authoritarianism, as once you eliminate individual rights, the state effectively controls all. They may choose not to control all production at a given moment, but that does not mean they do not have total control over it. The communists under the NEP did the same. It is not whether they exercise the power or not, but that they have the ability to do so that defines communism. And thus, any authoritarian system is like any other. They may differ in specifics, in how they pass along orders, whether they maintain the fiction of private ownership and so on, but essence, there is no difference.


Sunday, August 21, 2016

Trump's Returns

I know I normally eschew current events, but I have been repeating this argument so many times in various forums that I decided to write a post about it so I can just provide a link, rather than rewrite it every time.

There is a strong feeling among many that Donald Trump is refusing to release his tax returns, not for any legitimate reason, but to hide something. There are many theories about precisely what he is hiding. Maybe he is worth a lot less than he claims, or owes more than he says. Maybe he owes to the wrong people, like the Russians. Maybe he just has set up his income so he pays no taxes. Or maybe he contributes very little, or what he contributes he gives to the wrong groups, such as Democrats. There are a number of theories, but the point is, he is hiding something, and I have to say, given his excuse for not releasing them, I believe he is hiding something.

Why?

Well, because his excuse, that he is being audited, makes no sense.

Allow me to explain.

What is being asked is a copy of Trump's tax returns, nothing more. Not his complete financial records, not his bank statements, nothing but his tax returns. And, to argue he cannot release them because of an audit makes no sense.

Think about it. What is a tax return? In this case it is a copy of paperwork. What paperwork? Specifically, a copy of the tax forms -- and supporting documents -- Trump sent to the IRS to show how much he believed he owed in taxes. The IRS took these papers, made copies, and filed them. Trump retained a copy, and that is what we are asking to see.

Why is this important? Because, the auditors, being members of the IRS, already have a copy! As I said above, what Trump would reveal would be nothing but a copy of documents he already sent to the government, documents the IRS already has, and -- most important -- documents the auditors already have! There is nothing they could reveal to the auditors, as the auditors already have the very same documents, and thus concealing them provides no benefit, and revealing them would do no harm.

So, why do people buy Trump's excuse?

Some, simply because they accept whatever he says. but many who dislike him accept it as well, and for a reason not too hard to understand. You see, it does seem similar to an argument that would be legitimate, and so, because we don't consider it in depth, it sounds plausible.

Here, allow me to give another example. Suppose I run a company that is publicly traded. I am being audited by the SEC. The public asks to see my corporate books. I refuse, making the excuse I am being audited and my lawyers tell me to not reveal those documents. THAT would be a legitimate argument. The auditors do not have all those records, unless they subpoenaed them, and thus to reveal them would be to give an advantage to the opposition. And that is what people imagine is the crux of Trump's argument. But it is not a good analogy.

A good analogy would be if I were in that situation and the public asked to see the papers I filed with the SEC, and I said I could not reveal them as I am being audited. As in Trump's case, this makes no sense, as the SEC auditors would already have those documents, so revealing them would be meaningless, it would reveal nothing to the auditors they don't already know. And the same is true in this case, as the auditors already have Trump's returns.

Of course, I doubt this will stop Trump fans from buying into his arguments, but I do hope it helps those who do not buy into everything he says from accepting his flimsy, nonsense excuse for not revealing his tax returns.



Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Odds and Ends Concerning Trump

In recent comments on various other news sites, I have repeatedly made two points, and I figure I should make them here as well. Both relate to Donald Trump.

First, I am still seeing what I saw in my essays  "A Quick Check In", "A Brief Thought on Trump", "What Does Not Kill You...", "The Problem With the Big Tent", "Most Absurd Debate Since ... ", "Nice to Get Confirmation" and "Why We Have RINOs", Trump's campaign is being run exactly like Obama's 2008 one. In 2008, Obama made vague statements and his cultish followers heard in them what they wanted, and so could all believe Obama endorsed their exact beliefs, even if that meant followers had contradictory ideas of the "real Obama". Trump is very similar. Each of his followers imagines he knows the "real Trump" and believes those statements that fit his ideas, while imaging anything contradictory is "just politics' or "a joke". It is why they will never leave Trump or be disappointed, because they can imagine away any uncomfortable statements as not being "real". Just as they blame bad poll numbers of media bias, and dismiss scandals as media plots to discredit Trump, they ignore whatever he says that would otherwise upset them, imagining he "had to say it" or the media edited it to discredit him.  (See "The Candidate as Inkblot" about Obama's version. Also "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism" to explain how a similar thought process is used by most proponents of authoritarian schemes.)

Second, I wanted to mention the harm Trump is doing to conservatism. Not the obvious, such as his destruction of the GOP, or his filling the ranks of what is left with nationalist, alt-right and populist mobs. Nor the fact that the public, which confuses Republican and conservative, which now imagines Trump is what conservatism is about. I covered those before in "What Does Not Kill You...", "Our Oswald Mosely", "Both Sides Now", "The Trouble With Tough Talk" and "Predictability and Pragmatism - Why I Oppose Trump". No, the new topic I want to discuss is how Trump takes valid issues off the table. Take, for example, his hyperbolic claims about Obama and ISIS. There are legitimate issues there, such as how Obama's (and Hillary's) withdrawal of military forces and often counterproductive rules of engagement allowed ISIS to expand and become more powerful in the region. But now, because Trump presented the issue in the most stupid way possible, mixing in a hint of conspiracy theories, it is impossible to discuss reasonably, as any independent hearing a conservative mention the topic will imagine he is hearing the Trump position and shut it out. And Trump has done this to many, many issues, making ti impossible to raise valid concerns by his addle-minded way of addressing them.

Oh, there is much more to say, I am sure, but for the moment I think this will do. When I have more time I will return to the topic and, if Trump has not found an excuse to bow out of the race, I will take a more thorough look at him one more time.

More to Come

I am writing to let anyone who happens by know that I am not finally falling silent. Despite the incredible dearth of readers, I am soldiering on. I have just been quiet as last week I was on vacation at the beach, and this week work has taken up much of my time. But I do have two partly finished posts and a list of others (see "Upcoming Posts"). So please check back, there will be new content.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Most Unnecessary Neologism

It has been some time since I posted a Grammar Nazi post*, but in the past few days I have been reminded several times of a recently coined word that strikes me as perhaps the most unnecessary neologism I have seen. Not only does it have a particularly ugly sound -- always a sign of a bad creation -- but it has a meaning absolutely identical to an existing, often used word, and one that is not only shorter, but is no more confusing, difficult to spell or pronounce, or in any way less appealing than the neologism that is trying to replace it.

The word in question is "orientate".

I don't recall when I first ran into this neologism, but I know it was as a spoken, rather than written, word. And, at the time, I dismissed it as a simple colloquial use, similar to "conversate" or "irregardless" (for "regardless"). But, over time, I began to hear it more and more, and in settings where people generally use more formal language, all signs it was becoming an accepted word. All of which would probably not have inspired me to write about it, had I not come across it recently in an otherwise well written popular history, which convinced me the term had been accepted into the English lexicon.

So, what are my objections?

First, and most significant, the term serves no purpose. It is an ugly word, an example of "verbing" a noun, in this case "orientation", but, unlike most such neologisms which create verbs from nouns, in this case the process was pointless as there is a word which has precisely the same meaning. And, the identity of that synonym is the remainder of my argument, as it points out all the other reasons this word is so unnecessary.

And what is that synonym?

Simple. "Orient". The word "orientation" is itself derived from "orient", as one orients himself to a given orientation. Thus, there is no need for anyone to ever "orientate", since it is exactly the same process as orienting. Why create a new word derived from a noun itself derived from a perfectly good verb, and then give the new word the same meaning as that original verb?

Nor can one argue that "orientate" is in some way more useful than orient, as the two words are almost identical. The only difference between the two being the addition of an extra syllable to the neologism, rendering it less euphonious, but doing little else. Given the nearly identical spelling, similar pronunciation and indistinguishable meanings, I can imagine no conceivable argument that "orientate" is in any way superior to orient, or that there is any pressing need for the new word.

I know, it may seem a petty issue to many, but it bothers me when many feel the need to invent new jargon, or coin superfluous new words, simply because they are ignorant of existing words, or believe additional syllables make words sound more intellectual or professional. They are almost inevitably uglier, less useful and tend to simply clutter up the dictionary with redundant polysyllabic trash. I can accept that, at times, some jargon is needed for certain professions, and in some cases a neologism is needed to account for a usage which does not presently have a fitting word. But that is not an excuse to simply create words willy-nilly.

Is it so much to ask that, before one creates a new word, he looks to see if a word with that meaning already exists? And if he feels he must create a new word with a meaning identical, or even similar, to one that already exists, he do so only if the new word is either more pleasing to the ear, or in some other way superior to the one that already exists?

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* See "Biggest Spelling Nazi Laugh of the Day", "Quick Grammar Nazi Note", "Return of the Grammar Nazi: Faux Latin Plurals", "Always Something Worse", "Crimes Against Language and Logic", "The Irony of Lax Internet Standards", "Ye Olde Grammar Nazi", "In Defense of Standards", "Rules of Grammar and Pragmatism", "Spelling Nazi Short Post", "The Grammar Nazi Versus George Lucas", "If It's New, Can It Be a Cliche?", "Officially Annoyed", "Two Small Grammar Nazi Gripes", "One More Grammar Quibble","Fictitious Words", "New Blacklist" and "Misleading Terminology".

The Trouble With Tough Talk

Considering how much his followers attribute Trump's success to his tough talk and his refusal to use supposedly politically correct terms -- though often this is used as an excuse for the use of simply rude phrasing -- I think it may be a good time to examine these claims, to ask whether supposedly tough talk, that is using terms designed to fire up one's supporters and offend one's rivals, is a viable political tactic.

I suppose the first thing we need to establish is the fact that, for anyone who is using political rhetoric, those firmly in his corner do not constitute a majority. Were one confident of a majority, there would be no need for tough talk, or any talk at all. Once you have a solid majority, enacting your agenda is relatively simple. But, in politics, especially in modern times, such a solid majority of dedicated supporters is unknown, and thus, if you are attempting to persuade, defend, convince or other otherwise make a case, you are trying to win over those not yet supporting your position.

Given that reality, it seems supposed tough talk is probably a self-defeating approach.

Perhaps it would be easiest if I started with an example.

Recently, Trump has taken to claiming ISIS is praising Obama as its founder. In a similar vein, some conservatives have taken to calling Obama our Islamic president, some in jest, or to make a point, but others quite seriously proposing him as some sort of Islamic Manchurian candidate. Underlying these claims are a number of valid, if less heated, criticisms. Starting with the most basic, that Obama has shown too little backbone in dealing with hostile Islamic forces, through to his questionable deals with Iran both on hostages and Iran's nuclear program and on to the harshest claims, such as the claim that his treatment of Iraq, especially his withdrawal of troops, made possible ISIS's creation of an Islamic state. However, often these specific criticism get little voice, as those using supposed tough talk believe -- rightly among those with whom they agree -- that the shorthand of calling Obama a Muslim conveys everything that needs to be said.

Which points out the first problem with such tough talk. Often, in using such terminology, those speaking forget they are not trying to persuade those who already agree, but are trying to convince the unbelievers, those who might be open to the argument but remain undecided, those who are unaware of the issue entirely, those who as yet have no opinion, and even those who presently disagree but are open to argument. Those are the people who need to hear details, who need to hear the entire argument, but by simply shouting slogans and hurling insults, we cut short the presentation of the issue, the discussion of facts, and resort to little more than name calling. That is fine for firing up those who agree, it works to get cheers at a rally or raise the hits on one's blog, but in terms of gaining political support, it is not a very sound approach.

But there are worse consequences.

We can see these in the Trump campaign. Trump is a master of taking a valid issue, and finding the most stupid and offense way of presenting it. For example, his claims about Obama and ISIS, whatever his intent, make it sound as if there was once intentional collusion between the two, a position rightly rejected by most people, even among conservatives. Obama may be far too weak on defense, and too interested in appeasing potentially hostile powers, but there is no need to propose malice where stupidity will do.

The problem is, by presenting the issue in such a stupid way, Trump is not only harming himself, or causing voters to shut out his arguments, he is also making it impossible for others to bring up the issues. After Trump has tainted the issue with his tough talk, those we are trying to reach begin to associate the entire topic with his arguments. And so, when someone else brings up Obama's role in the creation of ISIS, the listener immediately shuts them out, believing the speaker is going to rehash the stupid argument presented by Trump. Thus, issues that once may have been potential means of winning over the undecided are now toxic, tainted by Trump's tough talk so that no one else may raise them in a more sensible way.

Which brings me to my final problem. Tough talk also, whatever else it may or may not do, serves to confirm the media image of conservatives as bigoted, racist, sexist bullies. It may amuse some conservatives to call the first lady a wookie, or hint that Obama is gay, or talk of Lie-a-watha or Faux-cahontas, but to those who do not agree, these terms often simply sound crass, and play into the image the media paints of conservatives.

When I raised this before, the inevitable response was "the media will always attack us, so why worry about it?" But that response misses the point. Unfounded media criticisms do not carry that much weight. The undecided may buy into it slightly, but without any confirmation, it is also easily refuted, and even when not refuted, is hardly persuasive when based on little more than media allegations. On the other hand, when we go out of our way to confirm those claims, when our actions fit the media claims, those claims gain tremendous weight, and the independents are easily convinced we are precisely what the press claims.

The other argument offered in favor of such supposed tough talk is that by "giving in" to PC speech we surrender to the left. But that is a straw man argument, as it manages to conflate two different issues. There is "politically correct", the term for hypersensitive, sometimes absurd, and often changing liberal verbiage, and then there is simple politeness. I am not arguing we need to be PC, we do not need to follow the dictum of the moment on whether one is "African-American", "a person of color" or what have you. Even using supposedly outdated terms such as "black" is fine. However, that does not mean we should start using "the n-word". Just because we reject the absurdly protean extreme sensitivity of political correctness does not mean we should be rude. One can be both polite and accurate. Sadly, those advocating tough talk often miss that point and confuse rudeness with accuracy and independence.

Of course, I doubt I will change minds. Thanks to the internet's obsession with number of followers and politicians' obsession with votes and "firing up the base", the right will be plagued with this absurd belief in the power of "tough talk" for a long time to come. Still, I may reach a few people, and if I did so, I may have done some good. At least I hope so.

Friday, August 5, 2016

None So Blind

My son was, as he often does, watching Youtube videos, and he happened upon one that had an interesting topic. In order to try to prevent charges against police officers, a district had equipped officers with cameras clipped to their uniforms. According to the study (which was admittedly a very small sample) the incidents of complaints against officers and use of force both declined significantly.

What was interesting was what the video maker considered as potential downsides. Or rather, I suppose in this age, it was not so surprising. All his concerns were about privacy. Where would officers record? Could videos end up being broadcast in public. Could old videos be searched for evidence of other crimes. And so on.

It is interesting that he never considered the other potential problem, the one that came to my mind immediately. What if, because he was concerned that his actions might be second guessed and judged, the camera made an officer hesitate to use force properly? What if, because of such concerns an officer ended up letting a suspect escape or ended up injured or dead?

Then again, perhaps I should not be so surprised. In this day and age, it seems the assumption is the police will act improperly, so the biggest worries for many probably are privacy. But the truth is, there are times when force is proper, and even when an officer should use force. Thus, if these measures make an officer hesitant to use force properly, it would be an impediment to proper law enforcement. And it is rather telling that those concerns never even occurred to the video maker.