Three Tips for Filtering the Feed

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By Mike Cronin

Last year I wrote about the war on Christmas. This year the election of Donald Trump has overshadowed the usual brouhaha over nativity scenes at City Hall. So this year I thought I’d go with something a little more practical. The guiding purpose of this blog is to make sense out of the vast array or “manufactured truth” that we are constantly bombarded with. Here are a few tips and tricks to deal with it every day:

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  1. Consume news skeptically: the first thing you need to remember about the news media is that their first concern is to sell advertising. Their second concern is often to reinforce a narrative or advance an ideological or even partisan agenda. Running in third place is actually informing you about the new events of the day. There has been much ado recently about fake news. Given the first and second criteria just outlined, almost all the news is fake to one degree or another. When there is some crisis happening, such as 9/11, and the news “breaks in” to tell us about the event as it’s happening, they haven’t had much time to adapt it to their preferred narrative. In those cases we are usually getting real news, even if some of the details are inaccurate while the debris is still falling or the smoke is still rising. As soon as one of these stories acquires its own theme music, it’s no longer breaking news. At that point you must start taking it with a grain of salt. In reality, the best way to glean something of the truth may be to examine headlines from multiple news sources, to include some foreign outlets such as the Economist, BBC, and perhaps even Al Jazeera or Xinhua.  Even so, while those sources may tell you what’s happening and why, they seldom articulate what it means and what will likely happen because of it. Personally, I like to scan the news headlines, but I also like to read intelligence. One of my favorite sources is StratFor; a private “intelligence” firm that uses the lens of geopolitics to explain the world.

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  1. Geopolitics, as you might have guessed, is not just about geography or politics, but about how geography enables or constrains political and/or economic action between nations and other actors. For example: The United States is largely regarded to have the largest economy and the most powerful military, and we are generally thought of as being the world’s only superpower. But it is not only our military might or our form of government that has led us to this condition. The United States is this way in part because of where it’s at and what it has. The most striking example of this is our river and coastal waterway system. “The Greater Mississippi Basin together with the Intracoastal Waterway has more kilometers of navigable internal waterways than the rest of the world combined. The American Midwest is both overlaid by this waterway and is the world’s largest contiguous piece of farmland. The U.S. Atlantic Coast possesses more major ports than the rest of the Western Hemisphere combined. Two vast oceans insulated the United States from Asian and European powers, deserts separate the United States from Mexico to the south, while lakes and forests separate the population centers in Canada from those in the United States. The United States has capital, food surpluses and physical insulation in excess of every other country in the world by an exceedingly large margin.” (From StratFor’s “The Geopolitics of the United States.”) Give these advantages, it would have been a shock if the US had not become an economic powerhouse! By way of contrast, consider the difficulties faced by a landlocked country. Afghanistan, for example, is estimated to have over $1 trillion worth of natural resources in the form of valuable ores and minerals. Yet owing to the difficulty of getting to and from Afghanistan and navigating within its borders, and the fractured nature of its tribal society, Afghanistan has never realized its economic potential, and is unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future. Where the United States has abundance of access, Afghanistan has a dearth. Geography has dealt a difficult hand to landlocked countries, but there is at least one way to overcome that difficulty: adopt a Western form of governance that recognizes individual rights and promotes liberty. Switzerland is the epitome of a country that can overcome geographic isolation by staying neutral in the conflicts of its neighbors and giving its people freedom.
  1. Like most, I’ve had geography classes, and classes on US. Government, but I never had a “geopolitics” class per se in my formal education. Our schools are set up to teach material as discreet subjects, but our brains are not set up that way. We learn and make memories by association. Another example might be economics. The word economics conjures up thoughts of central banks, such as the Federal Reserve, changing interest rates and conducting “quantitative easing.” Those elements of economics were among the set popularized by John Maynard Keynes, and “Keynesian Economics holds sway among the vast majority of economists today.  9i7jfxdepbiuxmllhv6wxoykazrjmeynuapn20ngnu0But in a broader sense, economics is the study of human activity. This goes hand in glove with geopolitics, as does history. Come to think of it, so does psychology. What if there was a way of learning economics (and other subjects) in a way that more closely mimics the way the human brain learns? Under such a rubric, there would be far fewer barriers between what we think of as the traditional subjects. Such a field exists.  It’s called “praxeology.” In short, praxeology is the study of volitional human action, and it is a basis for the Austrian school of economic thought.  We can borrow the concept to help us understand the world without trying to become economists ourselves.

Using these three tools (skeptical news consumption, understanding how geography can enable or constrain political and economic action, and removing the artificial barriers between “subjects,” and examining human action holistically), we can better learn to Filter the Feed.

Ten Observations on Election 2016

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By Mike Cronin

Donald Trump’s victory certainly stirred up a lot of clamor and noise this week.  Let’s see if we can herd some of the cats:

  1. Democracy has failed. The people chose Hillary Clinton by 200,000 votes, but the electoral victory went to Trump. Our “democracy” cannot fail if we don’t have one, which is in fact the case. We were given a federalist republic under the rule of law. We use democratic processes for some decisions to give the people a voice, but we are not supposed to have a system of straight-up majority rule. As to the electoral vote: It remains to be seen whether any electors will “go rogue” and vote against their “pledge” on Dec 19th, but it has happened before (as recently as 2004).  Of course, it’s never been by enough margin to change the outcome of an election.  In this case, at least 38 would have to be “faithless electors” to get Clinton to 270.
  2. Trump hates immigrants. He hates Mexicans. He hates Muslims. He’s racist.  We’ll, he might. Only he knows for sure.  However, he is married to an immigrant and he has people from all walks of life working for him.  He certainly doesn’t think people should be here illegally, which is not the same thing as hating the people who are or the people who want to be.
  3. Trump is a misogynist sexual predator. His caught-on-camera crudities certainly lend themselves to this narrative. There’s little actual evidence and no credible accusers that demonstrate he hates all women or has assaulted any of them, but Trump’s verbal vulgarity in this area is one of the most troubling things about him. Still, while Trump has been caught speaking like a sexual predator might; Hillary Clinton continues to aid and abet one.
  4. Trump is going to destroy all of the progress progressives have made over the last eight years. Possibly, but presidents seldom accomplish their full agendas.  Yes, Trump will have a Republican-majority Congress, but it won’t be a super-majority, and the Republican establishment doesn’t like him.  Trump bills himself as a deal maker.  He’ll have to be to get his agenda anywhere.
  5. Trump is going to elevate nationalism over globalism. Both are euphemisms for collectivism; only the boundaries are different. Neither is as good for individuals as unfettered free market capitalism.  There might possibly be temporary beneficial effects for Americans in the shift, especially if our troops come home and small businesses can thrive again.
  6. Trump is an idiot/outsider/politically inexperienced. He certainly does not articulate himself with Obama’s grace, but he is no dummy. In fact, he’s likely quite adept at persuasion (see items five and six on this list). He is certainly gifted at getting free publicity (or at least notoriety) from the very mass-media that hates him. Also, his lack of political experience, i.e. his NOT being a career politician or D.C. insider, is one of the fundamentals that led him to get elected.
  7. What happened with the polls? They consistently gave Clinton the edge! Bottom line: garbage in/garbage out.  The pollsters drew their samples from the same body of “likely voters” they always used, and in some cases “oversampled” Democrats.  The former was neglectful and led to the Democrats believing in their own invulnerability; the latter was a nefarious attempt to convince would-be Trump voters to stay home on Election Day. Once exposed, the revelation likely caused the exact opposite effect. Either way, the pollsters failed to obtain accuracy because they could not, or would not, sample validly.  
  8. FBI Director Comey’s shenanigans (i.e. his announcements regarding the on-again/off-again investigation into Clinton’s email debacle vis-à-vis Huma Abedin’s laptop) comprised the quintessential October Surprise, and it hurt Clinton. It certainly didn’t help, but it’s much more likely that Clinton’s shenanigans hurt Clinton.
  9. Why were Clinton and Trump our candidates? What secret weapon did they employ that none of their competitors had? 30-plus years of universal name recognition.
  10. What does it mean that Republicans gained more seats in Congress, strengthening their majority? They didn’t get a super majority, so there are a few (rare) actions they would have to earn Democratic support for in order to act: Impeaching the president and overriding his vetoes are two such cases. 2. Republicans will get to shape the Supreme Court for the next generation. 3. Republicans now have an opportunity to reverse much of the Democrats’ work over the last eight years. Whether they will actually do so, or get complacent and/or get caught up with internal divisions remains to be seen.

Rigorous Red or Bogus Blue? Part I

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By Mike Cronin

In the 1999 movie “The Matrix,” the future is presented as a dystopia where the vast majority of human beings are caged in pods that capture their body heat to energize a vast, governing machine intelligence.  In order to keep people in such a state, the machines created a virtual reality and plugged the brains of the human “batteries” directly into it – this constructed reality is the eponymous Matrix.

There are a few human rebels who escaped the machines, fighting an almost hopeless battle against them. These rebels are able to plug themselves back into the Matrix with full awareness of its virtual nature, and work to free the rare human “battery” who has begun to suspect the Matrix is not reality.  In the process of freeing such a mind, the leader of the extraction team confronts the skeptical person within the Matrix, hints at the truth, then offers the candidate two pills, one red, the other blue.  If the candidate takes the blue pill, he will remain trapped in the Matrix.  If he takes the red, he will be unplugged, rescued from his pod, and shown the true nature of reality.

There are some people today who believe we are living in a Matrix.  I don’t subscribe to that at all, but I do believe nearly all of our society’s ills can be attributed to a conflict between two philosophical meta-traditions, with schools of thought that promote collectivism & altruism on one side; and the philosophies of  individualism & reason on the other.  The traditions of collectivism & altruism have some Matrix-like qualities.

“Children who know how to think for themselves spoil the harmony of the collective society which is coming where everyone is interdependent.” ― John Dewy, hero of progressive education.

Like the machines in the Matrix, the elite of these traditions would prefer their subjects remain ignorant of the true nature of things, i.e. to take the metaphorical blue pill.  Creating critical thinkers is not a goal for the education of the masses in systems dependent on these models; nor is it a priority for the media to expose truths that contradict the narratives of the anointed elite.  But unlike the “batteries” of the Matrix, We the People are not trapped in energy-sucking pods. Metaphorical red pills can be found.

“We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.” ― Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States

Promoters and adherents of philosophies of individualism and reason are, like the rebels in the Matrix movies, very much a minority who see things much closer to the way they truly are. A thinking, reasoning mind is valued among such rebels, skeptics, and extremists, but represents a threat to the purveyors of the blue pill.

“To fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence… Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim… is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States… and that is its aim everywhere else.” – H.L. Mencken, journalist and author

The conflict between “blue” and “red” thinking has been with us since humans first started using tools to make tools – probably as far back as the invention of the wheel.  Blue thinking started with superstitions and pagan religions.  It has always had the advantage of being easier to sell and easier to believe in, so it has always flourished in some form or fashion, while red thinking has always required intellectual rigor, which meant it was not preferred by people looking for the path of least resistance. In fact, ours was the first nation to be founded on the principles of individual liberty and capitalism – i.e. The United States of America is the original red state!

Testing our Constitution

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By Mike Cronin

Today ought to be a national holiday.  229 years ago today, the Constitution was created.  It was ratified and became the highest law of the land two years later in March of 1789.  Contrary to popular opinion, or even popular “fact” taught in many of our schools, the Constitution didn’t give us a democracy, even though it specified certain democratic processes for electing the president and members of Congress and for proposing and enacting legislation.  It gave us a republic – a form of government where the people’s rights were protected by law and could not be voted away at the whim of the majority.  It gave us the first country in the history of mankind founded on the ideal of individual liberty and personal freedom.

The Constitution, and our republic, has been under attack, either literally or rhetorically, ever since.  Some, like Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, would have us believe the Constitution is a “living document,” i.e. open to re-interpretation through whatever cultural lens exists at a given time.  The Framers knew better than that.  They knew America would not be the same in 1887 or 1987 as it was in 1787, so they crafted a mechanism into the Constitution that would allow for it to be changed: via amendments. They deliberately made the amendment process challenging, but not impossible.  It has worked just fine at least 17 times over the last 229 years.  The most recent, the 27th Amendment, was ratified in 1992.  (Yes, there are 27 amendments, but the first ten were enacted simultaneously as the Bill of Rights, hence 17 instances the amendment process has been carried out.)

One of those amendments, the first in fact, is being tested right before our eyes today. There is a public controversy over several NFL players who are refusing to stand during the playing of the National Anthem.  As a veteran, I am in the curious position of both feeling pained and proud.  It pains me to see people disdain the anthem, because so many have fought and died to protect the freedom and liberty the flag stands for. And yet, the very first freedom protected by the Bill of Rights is the freedom of expression.  As much as it galls me to admit it, our country has not always acted in accord with its own highest law.  As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, for nearly a century after the Constitution was ratified, men could own other men in this country…if they were black. Our history has other examples of its failure to abide by the Constitution and the principles of individual freedom it protects: Confiscatory income taxes. The draft. Excessive bureaucracy and scandalous deficits and debt. Spying on citizens. Obamacare. Failures to hold officials accountable for their transgressions in office. The list is not short.

So when an NFL player refuses to stand for the National Anthem, and no government sanction ensues, I can be proud to witness an instance where the Constitution itself is being honored by the government, even if those who have given everything in its defense are being dishonored.

Of course that works both ways.  Just as those few players have the right not to stand, the fans, the teams, and the league have the right to express their displeasure at the offending players.  It would not pain me at all to see the league fine, or the teams discharge, the players in question!

An Open (and Polite) Letter to the Gun Control Faction

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By Mike Cronin

Here’s my take on the bitter firearms dispute vitiating our country. I offer my commentary without vitriol. No contempt. No condescension. No name-calling, baiting, or inflammatory rhetoric; just exposition.

Obviously, we have a fundamental philosophical difference.  I don’t know, but I suspect that your apprehension over firearms is energized by a belief that it is the government’s responsibility to protect the citizenry from harm, and that you see firearms in private hands as a huge threat, especially given horrific mass shootings.  Ergo, the government should further regulate firearms or ban them outright. If I am articulating it wrong, please correct me.

I can’t speak for every pro-gun rights person, but I suspect most of us subscribe to a quite different interpretation of the government’s duty to protect us than you do.  I see it like this:  All of us have the inherent right to defend ourselves from immediate violence.  It would be nice if there were always a police officer around to intercede on our behalf, but that’s just not feasible, so we compromise.  We retain the ultimate individual right to self-defense, but we delegate the right to retaliate after the fact (via impartial criminal prosecution and punishment) to government.

So far, you may not see a large gulf between our positions.  Yet there is a significant one:  It is my position that the right to self-defense is absolute.  By that I mean that I have the right to defend myself from ANY initiation of violence (or the imminent threat of same) from ANY initiator – up to and including government agents, should they act in the absence of due process or turn overtly tyrannical.  A shotgun or revolver is hardly proportional to such a threat. Since our own government, should it turn tyrannical, and the forces of other governments, should they unwisely choose to invade this country, possess weapon systems of devastating destructive power, it is more than reasonable for a free individual to possess mere firearms to stand in opposition, even if such opposition must take the form of a covert insurgency. It is reasonable that a free person possess firearms identically lethal to those his oppressors routinely bear.

Does that mean I think private individuals should be able to go down to “Booms-R-Us” and buy guided missiles and tanks and chemical weapons?  In the absence of a better argument, I’ll accede to this principle: the more indiscriminate a weapon is, the harder it should be for anyone to obtain.  That principle is already largely in effect. Regardless of anybody’s desire, there is no “Booms-R-Us” to go to in this country. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t legally buy a grenade, landmine, or bomb as a private citizen without an enormous amount of oversight, if at all. Conversely, hand-held firearms currently legal for possession are discriminate enough that law-abiding individuals should not be further barred or banned from buying and possessing them, regardless of militarized appearance, magazine capacity, fire rate, trigger function, or other minutiae, or whether some sociopath or jihadist has used one to commit mass murder.

There has been, and will continue to be, all manner of legal wrangling over the exact meaning of the oddly-phrased Second Amendment within the bounds of “the letter of the law.” However, the Founders made the spirit and intent clear in their other writings.  The Second Amendment does not primarily protect the right to hunt or compete at the skeet range, that protection is a byproduct.  It protects the individual right to self-defense. (Don’t take my word for it; the Supreme Court has said as much in D.C. vs. Heller.) A populace that can assassinate tyrannical leaders and their henchmen and fight a well-equipped guerrilla war against its oppressors is a populace that will not be easy to subjugate. The purpose of the Second Amendment is to guarantee that America has such a populace.

If we look at our positions from a purely logical standpoint, I posit that we are arguing from different premises: The pro-gun rights argument rests on the premise that individuals have an inherent and inviolate right to self-defense, and that our government is obligated by the Second Amendment to protect that right through non-infringement on keeping and bearing arms. If I have not misread the argument for the gun control faction, your premise is that government’s obligation to protect our rights gives it (or should give it) the purview to limit the potential for anyone to cause harm.

I contend that the more power you give to the government to prevent anyone from causing harm, the more pathological personalities you will attract who seek to wield that power…to cause harm!  Eventually, you will get a card-carrying totalitarian who will turn the United States into a Venezuela or an Iraq, or worse. The alternative is to accept some risk with your freedom: occasionally, a nut with a rifle will kill a bunch of innocent people.  The proper mitigation to both threats: A populace that can shoot back!

A Crazy Idea

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By Mike Cronin

In the 1600s, pilgrims came to this land to escape religious persecution. Other colonists soon followed. In the late 1700s, the thriving 13 colonies decided to throw off the yoke of their far-off ruler. In the 1860s, we fought a war over slavery.  (Some will tell you the war was about state’s rights, but the “rights” being fought over were the right to secede from the Union in order to continue the practice of slavery.) About a half-century later, women won the right to vote. Nearly another half century after that, we had the civil rights and equal rights movements.  At some point, other groups saw that these early movements were largely successful in gaining for their members the recognition that they deserved the same rights as anyone else. But then new groups started seeking privileges disguised as rights.

For instance: the gay marriage movement.  This movement sought (and is still seeking) the privilege for one person to be able to marry another person of the same gender. The movement postulates that since heterosexuals have a “right” to marry, homosexuals deserve no less. Advocates of this arrangement are right that homosexuals ought to have the same rights as heterosexuals; but they err by seeking parity with heterosexuals in being permitted to marry by the government. If marriage (or domestic partnership), or any other kind of association is indeed a right, then the movement should be demanding the elimination of government intrusion (except for the function of contract enforcement) in the domestic arrangements of competent, consenting adults. (Freedom-loving heterosexuals ought to consider advocating for the same thing!)

Now we live in a time with a constantly-increasing number of movements and causes seeking special privileges for smaller and smaller groups of people.  The latest examples: Trans-gendered folks seeking the “right” to use whichever public restrooms are appropriate to the gender they “identify” with.  College kids demanding “safe spaces” where they can be free from challenging ideas espoused by disagreeable people. Illegal immigrants demanding in-state tuition rates and voting rights. Minimum-skilled fast-food workers demanding higher pay than junior military members (who have months of technical training) make. Able-bodied yet jobless people demanding food stamps.

Before you know it, every single individual in this country will get the crazy idea that they deserve equal rights for themselves.  Some will demand free speech, others will want to own a gun, and many would like to have the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.  Some might even want to be free to associate with whomever they’d like.

Folks might get the fantastical notion that a genuine individual right cannot require or obligate anything of anyone else other than that we leave each other alone and honor our voluntary commitments.

Some thought leaders and other prominent people might even get together and decide to craft a document that would enshrine these ideas.  They might imagine that the best way to organize a government would be around the concept that its sole purpose is to protect the rights of free individuals, and that such freedom is the best way yet devised by humans to deliver the greatest good to the greatest number.

I wonder what it would take to produce such a document and put it into force. Could such a society ever flourish? What would we call such a place?

 

Random Absurdities, Pt. 2.

 

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By Mike Cronin

It’s OK to kill our (human) enemies, but we dare not name them.  On the other hand, we have no compunction about conducting war against all sorts of things that aren’t enemies: Terrorism is a tactic used by our aforementioned unnamed enemy, but terrorism itself is not an enemy. Drugs are a commodity sold by enemies taking advantage of the risk/reward conditions our drug laws create, but drugs themselves are not an enemy. Poverty is a condition often perpetuated by people who refuse to accept that they are responsible for the choices they make.  Poverty is not an enemy, but the “War on Poverty” often treats the most productive among us as foes.

The “Occupy Wall Street” types who made a stink a few years ago railing against capitalism were often seen wearing name-brand clothing, drinking coffee from famous-brand cafes, and calling and texting each other on smart phones.  How can one accept an anti-capitalist argument from spokes-dudes wading up to their necks in the products, goods, and services created at the hands of some of our most effective capitalists?

Scientifically speaking, anything with a carbon molecule is organic. Virtually all of the food items we eat, with the exception of water, salt, and trace minerals, are organic in the most factual sense possible: they contain carbon atoms and molecules in the structures of carbohydrates and proteins.   The idea that a vegetable or box of cookies or a can of soda might not be legally “organic” when they are factually “organic” is a semantic absurdity fostered by the pipsqueaks of panic.

Ditto for “genetically modified organisms” (GMOs).  Virtually every domesticated food plant and animal produced and consumed today is a result of genetic modification that has been going on since the dawn of agriculture.  Here again, the pipsqueaks are pandering to fear.  It makes no difference to your body if a tomato or grape or a chicken was modified over many generations in the field or one generation in a test tube.  You are going to eat the stuff, draw energy from it, and eliminate it, not blend it into your genetic code. Eating “Franken-food” will not cause you to turn into a shambling mutant!

I am reliably informed that airline pilots for most of the big domestic airlines (American, United, Delta) are paid by the hour, from the time the jet is pushed back from the gate at the departure airport until the door is opened at the arrival airport.  Is it not absurd to incentivize your highest-paid hourly employees to NOT be efficient in an industry with such low profit margins that attention to efficiency is essential for financial success?

The concept of “white privilege” has been instigated as a way to induce guilt in white people for (supposedly) causing, or at least not having to suffer, the woes (real or imagined) of every other demographic. It is a racist concept, and it absurd.  It is racist because it attributes advantage to whites solely on the basis of their skin color.  It ignores the fact that there are many non-white people who attain as many, or more, rewards and advantages in their lives than most whites.  It is absurd when applied to Americans because all of us in the US enjoy far more “privilege” (in the form of better living conditions, more freedom, and more opportunities for some, and sadly, also in the form of government handouts for others) than most people in most countries around the world.  The constant stream of immigrants pouring into this country (legally and illegally) aren’t coming here seeking to be oppressed by the man!

We are supposed to take it for granted that income inequality is a bad thing and accept all kinds of wealth redistribution schemes to help resolve it.  There is never any allowance for the possibility that income inequality might be a direct result of ingenuity inequality or effort inequality. That would mean that people are responsible for their own achievements (or lack thereof).  We can’t have that – it would be absurd!