Liberty and Justice for All - or Apocalypse Now?

One Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Every American school kid makes that pledge every day.

KGB agents probably make a different pledge. Liberty and justice for all, or Genghis Khan with a telegraph? Some American politicians seem to prefer the KGB version. Why is that such a critical problem right now? What's the relationship between global warming, mass shootings, ISIS, N Korea, apocalyptic social media, Russian interference, and the death of bipartisanship?

Each of these topics is outlined below.


A solution: The Liberty and Justice for All Coalition - fulfilling the pledge of allegiance

The Liberty and Justice for All Coalition - fulfilling the pledge of allegiance

I think of a coalition of factions within existing parties as more likely than a new third party, with these key constituencies:

So it's not a coalition of agreed policies but of agreed methods of political process: searching for facts and logic rather than entertainment, searching for areas of agreement rather than areas of disagreement, and consequently eschewing litmus test creeds, apocalyptic language, and divisive social wedge issues.

For instance, I would hope that there are 30 Republican and 30 Democratic senators who can agree to vote FOR continuing resolutions and debt ceiling resolutions without riders and AGAINST continuing resolutions and debt ceiling resolutions with riders. Keeping the government operational and solvent and drama-free is important enough for good government to keep distinct from other contentious issues - both parties have tried to use such must-pass budget legisation to pass unrelated legislation. In December it was the Freedom Caucus.

Such a centrist coalition will move American politics gradually toward the left at a pace that the majority can live with. Eric Levitz writes that America is not a Center-Right Nation because voters support entitlement spending in opinion polls, though if polls ask about plausible funding mechanisms, voter enthusiasm might be less. That's why movement to the left tends to be gradual. Levitz argues that most voters vote based on partisan identity rather than ideological conviction.

There are a number of organizations that might deserve your support, already working toward more effective centrist government and bipartisanship:

Peace does not mean an absence of conflicts; differences will always be there. Peace means solving these differences through peaceful means; through dialogue, education, knowledge; and through humane ways.
-- Dalai Lama XIV

A centrist coalition is a solution. Let's step back a bit to the bigger picture:


A problem: exponential growth, magnified by technology, meets finite resources

The Fermi Paradox - why is it that there seem to be no other advanced civilizations in our whole vast universe?

It's hard to extrapolate with confidence from a sample of one, our own. One possibility is, that if life everywhere evolved somewhat according to the same rules, that

Such self-destruction could just as well be accidental as intentional. There were numerous close calls during the Cold War.

So what is our best hope for avoiding or at least deferring the same fate? The evolutionary competition that was often helpful when it was man against predatory animal, became less often helpful when it became man against man of another tribe, and has become completely unhelpful - in fact insanely disastrous - when one man can wipe out his whole species. Some degree of cooperation had better supplant competition before everybody has the means and motivation to blow everybody else up. That's one of the points made in the book The Chalice and the Blade. These things might not be irrevocably fixed in our genes: chimps and bonobos are two species, remarkably similar biologically, remarkably different culturally.

Of course, there could be simpler explanations. One might be that advanced civilizations produce so much space junk in the early years that they can't escape in later years - 170 million fragments so far circle earth after less than 70 years.

Another possible explanation relates to cosmic rays - the messengers of explosions creating all the gold, silver, lead, and uranium that we use. Cosmic rays are one possible cause of the genetic mutations that randomly lead to evolutionary dead ends, in most cases, but evolutionary advances, in a few cases. Too many cosmic rays means too many dead ends. Not enough cosmic rays means evolution too slow on the cosmological scale. Is the earth's magnetic field precisely the right size to allow precisely the right flux of cosmic rays to positively influence the evolution of intelligent life on earth? Nobody knows.

Exponential growth vs fixed limits

Human population has always grown exponentially (like compound interest). The rate has become lower in advanced economies as children become more of a financial liability and less of a financial asset. But earth resources do not grow exponentially. All are finite because the earth is finite. 15000 scientists have issued a second warning to humanity.

Finite resources constrain exponential growth in different ways at different times and places. For instance, exponential growth in carbon-based fuel burning leads to global warming, leaving some countries with even less water than they used to have and others with even more than they used to have. All this leads to global strategic conflict.

Finite resources have always been allocated unequally among different segments of the human population. That creates conflict. Those allocated less believe that those with more have gained those resources unfairly. This is sometimes true. Even if not true, it makes a better story for politicians to blame some bad people for the problem.

Technology can't avoid the issues of exponential growth. Technology will allow for an unknown but finite number of deferments to the day of reckoning foreseen by Malthus. These deferments buy humankind valuable time to do... what?

Democratization of technology and force multiplication

In 1787, it was not possible for one man, however well armed, to kill 50 people before being overpowered by a few unarmed men. Now it is not just possible, but no longer surprising. The reason is that technology has multiplied the force of one man. That technology is widely available and becoming more widely available.

What is true of one man is also true of small factions and small states. ISIS and North Korea can threaten much larger states. The technology that enables them was not available when I was born. Can the South Koreans be confident that the United States would defend Seoul at the risk of a nuclear strike against Silicon Valley? What about a North Korean chemical strike? Would ISIS have been defeated if it had access to weapons of mass destruction and credible means to deliver them?

The potential force deployable by small actors has been so multiplied that western democracies have had to change their entire lifestyles around public events, public transportation, and government surveillance of communications.

History suggests that sooner or later, threats of application of weapons of mass destruction will lead to a miscalculation on one or both sides, which will result in mutual application.

Democratization of technology has other effects as well as weaponry. The pamphleteers in 1787 were remarkably effective, for good and ill. Think how much more effective they would have been if they could have printed pamphlets for free and delivered them precisely to those known to be favorably disposed toward reading them and acting on them. This is what cable has done for television, and social media has done for the internet. As in 1787, news and entertainment have become so conflated that most people are no longer sure which is which, and tend to accept entertainment that they like as equivalent to objective news. A Russian "Texas Secession" facebook account gained hundreds of thousands of gullible followers. Apparently the Russian Internet Research Agency got 62,000 Americans to sign up for 129 phony events.

In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx described the globalizing effects of ever-faster technological change, constantly upending the established order of things, so that nothing seems certain any more:

Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.

The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations... In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations.

Is there an inherent speed limit to mankind's ability to responsibly absorb technological change? Does that rapid, if not metastatic, change inevitably carry the seeds of its own destruction?

How might nations respond to the internal and external threats of a shrinking world?

Looking inward: one approach is for each large nation to define its sphere of influence and build various kinds of walls around it to keep the bad people and bad ideas out. North Korea, PRC, and Russia are all examples of nations at various stages on this path. This eventually requires an unequivocal central definition of good people and good ideas, and the power to exact compliance - a dictatorship. That is particularly true if time is so short that there is no time for discussion and consensus building.

Meanwhile, looking for analogies overseas,

Looking outward: another approach is for each large nation to cooperatively engage with the other nations to define and work toward a just and sustainable future. This has been the approach of most western democracies, now under challenge in various degrees in all of them. Working cooperatively requires some embrace of diverse attitudes and approaches, discussion, consensus building, and compromise, and thus takes a long time - perhaps more time than is available.

President Trump doesn't like multilateral agreements that leave all parties better off. He seems to prefer one-to-one negotiations with a clear winner and loser. The Trump administration can't even be bothered to nominate diplomats.

Will walls and dictatorship work?

The problem with physical walls is that global problems like

do not respect national boundaries or physical walls. Ironically, the Chinese have begun to see that environmental preservation is in their long-term national self-interest, even at the cost of short-term economic progress, just as the Trump administration is acting on the opposite impulse.

Information firewalls can work pretty well in completely-controlled homogeneous populations but tend to leak if there is any significant intellectual intercourse with external populations. Modern technology enables the modern dictatorship. The uncontrolled internet is a threat, but the state-controlled internet is a tool for automated indoctrination in one direction, sometimes masquerading as entertainment, and automated surveillance for deviation from orthodox doctrine in the other direction.

But ultimately the shortcoming of dictatorial systems, despite their efficiency in turning thought into action, is that the thought of dictators necessarily turns on actual and potential rivals - short-term threats to an individual dictator, rather than long-term threats to the nation.

Will cooperation and collective action work?

The problem with a "just and sustainable future" is that different groups envision that differently. Those unwilling to share and compromise find the very idea threatening. Democratic processes take a long time to develop consensus, if they succeed at all. From the dictatorial point of view, the consensus may not arrive in time or might not be just or sustainable, and thus would be worse than the dictatorial outcome. The unpredictable ferment of a collective consensus process might threaten the existence of established dictatorial states.

How can dictatorial states respond to the threat of collectivist globalist action?

Modern warfare between large states would be too destructive for such states to survive, so military warfare tends to be through smaller proxies. Probably more important between large states is non-military conflict. Once again, technology provides means: new social media and older broadcast media bring automated pamphleteering to a whole new level. The dictatorial point of view can seek to undermine the threat of cooperative collectivist action by sowing dissension and misinformation and confusion in societies that permit open discussion of issues, with the specfic intent to fan real and imagined grievances in order to destroy the political center.

So who has an interest in sowing misinformation and conflict? Let's think of a few social media possibilities...

Facebook
Twitter

Facebook and Twitter are not directly attempting to undermine democracy. They are just trying to make a buck - though Twitter has yet to succeed. And there are other players trying to make a buck in fake social media.

In this search for profit, the social media economy is much like the huge universe of cable channels unshackled from the Fairness Doctrine. Google and the RT Russian propaganda channel found YouTube to be mutually profitable.

Has Twitter rendered the First Amendment impotent just as nuclear weapons rendered battleships obsolete? Overseas it's even worse. Judge Lynch would have loved social media. Russia is turning American democracy into Reality TV.

How did we get here? The Web 2.0 business model was:

  1. Get content for free from end users
  2. Sell advertising targeting end users
  3. Sell premium subscriptions to end users that want to avoid the advertising
The Web 3.0 business model expands that:
  1. Get content for free from end users
  2. Collect every bit of data observed from end user behavior - where they went, what they did
  3. Sell micro-targeted advertising algorithms and data focussed on specific groups of users - perhaps the next step is targeting specific individuals
The number of startup vendors hopping on Facebook micro-targeting is reminiscent of... the internet bubble of 2000. But micro-targeting is also what the Russians have exploited so thoroughly. Doing so, the Russians are not abusing Facebook and Twitter but exploiting the essential nature of the social media business model: creating and bonding communities of like-minded people who will respond to the same advertising: Russian Facebook content might have reached 126 million users. It's hard to believe that Facebook and Twitter can invent countermeasures faster than the opposition can invent measures - unless the countermeasures are so draconian that they undermine the business model.

Meanwhile, Russians have proposed international conventions to ratify their approach to cyberspace.

Finally some, but not all, of the major corporate beneficiaries of the internet have decided not to enable cyberterrorism.

Dictators find Facebook a useful tool.

So who else has an interest in sowing misinformation and conflict?

Putin
Bannon
Trump
Jim Hoft
Alex Jones
Nazis
David Duke
Roy Moore
The Freedom Caucus
The violent and suppressive parts of the leftist resistance

 ...and many others, including those who support these financially...

The motives of these individuals and groups vary. It would be surprising to learn that they were all on Putin's payroll. It would be equally surprising to learn that none of them were. To some degree it doesn't matter. It might be helpful to frame the question this way:

How would their behavior be different if they were working for Putin to undermine western democracy by destroying the rational center?

In my youth, these would have been called "fellow travelers." The paranoid style in American politics dates back to the earliest days of the Republic, with much earlier European antecedents.

Is incompetence or ignorance an adequate defense against a charge of Treason: "adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort" ?

But let's not place Putin alone on a pedestal of evil -

But...

Russian social media agents are happy to espouse both sides of any volatile controversy that undermines democratic consensus on how to resolve political differences constructively. They were on the Parkland shooting within a couple of hours. While outside agitators can't create division, they can certainly increase the split that's already there.

The Russians' immediate apocalyptic tone is intended to engage a broad audience - whether for or against doesn't matter. And it's intended to distract attention from the real underlying longer-term apocalyptic issues mentioned initially: exponential growth vs finite resources, and the democratization of destructive technology.

Is there an alternative to divisive polarization?

What should citizens of western democracies be doing if their end goal does not coincide with that of Russia, China, or North Korea?

The center of American politics is somewhat amorphous but this is the way I might like to think of it in the future:

The Liberty and Justice for All Coalition - fulfilling the pledge of allegiance

That's where I started.


Restatement of the argument from the bottom up



Let's get rid of the center - it just gets in the way:

In the 1930's, the left and right were battling for the future of Germany. They were somewhat restrained by the democratic center. They both eventually realized that the center was in the way and needed to be undermined and undone. If they had actively conspired together, their tactics would have been the same - violence and lies, driving wedges into the central coalition until there was nothing left. "Everybody's asking, which side are you on."

If I had been there, I would have supported the idea of restoring Germany to its rightful place among the nations - making it great again. I would have assumed that the leader, like all politicians, made lots of crazy promises that he would forget about as soon as he came to power as he pivoted toward reason. I would have been half right. The leader did pivot, but in the other direction. Soon there was no more public conflict at all, as promised. If the left had won, the details would have been different but the overall picture much the same.

What we have now in our politics of disruption is a joint endeavor between domestic and foreign interests to destroy the center of American politics. Our domestic disrupters are probably mostly unaware of their usefulness to the foreign ones, but the foreign disrupters are very much aware of the usefulness of the domestic ones. More insightful observers like Evan McMullin had already figured this out, but for me the moment of enlightenment came when it was revealed that the Russian social media agents were taking both sides of the NFL controversy. Now they are involved with Laura Ingraham against Parkland student David Hogg. Why not? any wedge serves their purposes. The way to make Russia great again, in its proper sphere, is to make America great again, in its proper sphere. I wonder when the Chinese are going to pick up and act on the same ideas - followed by the North Koreans and Iranians.

So here came Steve Bannon, who is very self-aware, to create his National Socialist American Workers Party, calling it the true Trump Republican party. He even thinks Pence is too establishment. Why did Bannon oppose Pence, who could skillfully lead a Republican Congress to enact a reactionary agenda? And why did Bannon back inexperienced and unaccomplished candidates to replace all the sitting Republican senators? Because they are guaranteed to be ineffective and can be easily manipulated to exacerbate any crisis? Because he didn't want to enact reactionary legislation, but cause a complete breakdown in governance?

Bannon is setting up a PAC to purge the Trump Organization of any wayward Republicans in 2018. Apparently Bannon wouldn't mind doing the same thing for Rome and he has fellow travelers there. At least Bannon has a theory and a program. Thus his climate change denial is a necessary consequence of his anti-internationalist ideology rather than a consequence of simple ignorance and superstition.

I doubt that Bannon is particularly racist, sexist, anti-semitic, or flat-earth evangelical, but he is keenly aware that his coalition depends critically on all those elements now. The ones he doesn't like, if any, could be purged later when no longer useful. Bannon was funded by the Mercers and didn't need Putin's money, but he's certainly grateful for Putin's help driving wedges. Bannon seems to be on his way out at the moment, but he might be back. Trump can be very forgiving when he finds it advantageous. Whatever the true spirit of Trumpism might be, the calculating populist Bannon and the clueless kleptocrat Trump can't both personify it, though one could be the substance and the other the form.

Trump is everybody's useful idiot here - just as Hitler was - or so the German elite thought. All the warring factions of the right will identify themselves as Trumpists. Predictably unpredictable in a predictable way, he creates new wedge issues, perhaps all on his own, perhaps with some discreet help.

Create enough wedges of real news, and fake news will no longer be necessary. But by creating enough public confusion about which news is real and which is fake, the disrupters hasten the day when they can proclaim that there is only one authorized source of authorized news, and the rest will have to be shut down.

Destroying the democratic center with its maelstrom of conflicting points of view will restore peace and quiet and law and order for the people... not to mention the billionaires.

Why do the extremes want to destroy the center?

Putin and Bannon share an apocalyptic view of the world in which the bad guys are constantly trying to take from the good guys. So they hope to build walls around their spheres of influence to keep the bad guys out. Because bad ideas can turn good guys into bad guys, the end game has to include keeping bad ideas out too. Putin certainly understands that. Bannon might too. So social media are useful for instigating and carrying out the revolution, but afterward they have to be converted into a form useful for the state: China and North Korea provide the model - and Bannon likes the Chinese model. Instead of the original internet vision of a confederation of independent printing presses, the internet becomes two channels: one for indoctrination, perhaps camouflaged some of the time as pablum entertainment, and one for surveillance, to detect deviations from orthodox doctrine. David Ignatius attended a Princeton conference on Defending Democracy but concluded that market forces would be more effective that government regulation and the bigger threat was fake data of all kinds.

What about apocalypse?

Unfortunately there are some issues that really are apocalyptic, but they are perhaps more profound than the extremists grasp. The earth is a finite system. Put carbon in my air and it affects your weather across your wall too. If I throw plastic in my ocean, it will infect your ocean too. For any given total population there is a maximum standard of living that they can all enjoy. For any standard of living, there is a maximum population. Technological advances create deferments on the day of reckoning, but exponential growth will not continue forever in a finite system. Zero population growth will be achieved, either unpleasantly by altering our goals and behavior globally, or much more unpleasantly through periods of negative population growth that are truly apocalyptic. The western democracies might already be enjoying a standard of living that is too rich for the whole present population of the earth. But even if that's not true now, it will be eventually.

The problem with immigration from poor countries to wealthy ones is not that the immigrants will fail to assimilate. Rather, they will assimilate too well, and their descendants will expect the same unsustainable standard of living as the descendants of earlier immigrants. George Will discusses what he calls the unjustified static complacency of western democracies. On reflection, I think what he considers complacency is actually the coming to terms with the limitations of a sustainable lifestyle for an aging population. These limitations will be encountered by any country that becomes wealthy enough to have a lifestyle worth sustaining. Japan is already there; America is getting there, especially if immigration doesn't maintain a a positive population growth rate. Rich western countries will need immigrants who are rocket scientists and agricultural laborers and everything in between.

Even the people of poor countries like Bangladesh and Somalia, who decide not to emigrate, might decide that they still deserve the same standard of living and reject any notion that their poverty is their fault and therefore take action to achieve justice. Thomas Friedman explains how this applies to Niger.

How can little countries redress their grievances? Here's where technology comes to the rescue. Drones are an example of a technology that is just beginning to be harnessed for terrorism - the warfare style of weak combatants. There will be more. Chemical, biological, and radiation weapons technology is apt to be democratized too. Regimes like North Korea will be glad to sell what they know to anybody that might threaten their enemies.

One might suppose that a dictatorship would be better able to deal with apocalyptic conditions. And that might be true when they finally arrive. Avoiding them in the first place is less likely - by the nature of how they gain and keep power, dictators tend to focus on immediate threats to their regime, if not their life. Distant threats not so much. Democracies don't do so well either, but they have a chance to the extent that a diversity of political voices might include some that point in the right direction.

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

  -- Robert Frost

So what's the conclusion?

The extremists are partially right: there are apocalyptic threats, But they are ultimately clueless about what to do about them.

The work of the democratic center is cut out too. The advantage is that a diversity of ideas and approaches is more likely to produce a solution, eventually. More likely but not guaranteed in time.

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