Direct democracy, aristocracy, and America

The American political system is solving itself into a system with less internal conflict, paradoxically creating greater manifest conflict


It isn’t that people are less intelligent than before, it’s that we’ve slowly eroded the aristocracy that was supposed to protect us from ourselves: the electoral college is a non-sapient mechanism at this point, Senators are directly elected, and many judges are directly elected. The House was always intended as a playground for demagoguery and polemics, but now that the Senate and Presidency and judiciary are as well, there are no more arms-length gatekeepers. The parties that control the country have no incentive to make wise decisions, only popular ones… and then, only popular enough to win roughly 30% or so of the population, that portion that constitutes a majority of the voters.

Direct democracy has always been a bad idea, and in some case it’s because of a parallel issue that libertariaism has: you can’t expect the entire populace to be plugged-in dispassionate arbiters of social, political, l and legal issues, just like you can’t organize a society around everyone being good little capitalist marketeers.

The aristocracy of the Constitution – a republic, in that the aristocracy ostensibly is vulnerable to some popular rollover – was trying to thread the needle between mobocracy and oligarchy, and somehow both ends of the equation have managed to find and distill the worst elements of both.

What’s interesting about this is that the original system was supposed to be full of checks and balances, governmental factions existing in a creative tension, pulling against each other to tease out an optimized government. That’s a great idea, but in modern times that’s become just another system to solve. The system has been slowly eroding these impediments to efficiency – eroding the tensions, smoothing the process – but in doing so, they’re breaking the end result. The system wasn’t supposed to run smoothly, it was supposed to create good government. By emphasizing the smoother operation and selection of various governmental representatives, all it’s done is shift the tension from being between branches with differing methods and oversight to a tension between political parties, and in doing so the various branches of government are themselves existing within a tension, unable to present a united front for consideration by the other branches.

The creative tension between branches is now a destructive tension within branches. Congress can’t legislate. The President acts with increasing impunity, knowing the Executive can’t be stopped by a feckless Congress and inspired to act and fill the gap of Congress’s dysfunction. The judiciary is forced to resolve issues which ought to be resolved by legislation. It’s a decent lesson in systems maintenance: you’d best fix one thing when it starts to rattle, because that rattling is going to break two or three other things, which will break two or three other things.

Freddie Gray’s death: an “oops”

In America a system can kill and no one can be found accountable

No one has yet been found guilty for the death of Freddie Gray.

Once upon a time, it was generally held that the Nuremberg defense – that you were merely following orders – was inadequate. Today, the question of a system’s failings and how that system’s members can avoid responsibility seems to be answered with Alfred E Neuman defense: “I was oblivious”. Ignorance of the consequences of your actions is apparently sufficient.

The charges were: second-degree depraved-heart murder, second-degree assault, manslaughter, reckless endangerment, and misconduct. I personally thought that the depraved-heart murder charge was never going to fly, but how can reckless endangerment not stick? A man goes into a van under the protective custody of the police and comes out with a severed spine. The particulars of the case are even worse: Gray is loaded into a van without breaking any laws, is injured at some point, and eventually is rendered comatose.

The full decision is here and I’m pretty disappointed: “Seemingly, the State wants this Court to simply
assume that because Mr. Gray was injured, and the
defendant failed to seat belt him after stop 2, allegedly
ran a stop sign, and made a wide right turn, that the
Defendant intentionally gave Mr. Gray a rough ride. As
the trier of fact, the Court cannot simply let things
speak for themselves.” The judge then proceeds to lay out that hey, no one actually checked this guy asking for a hospital well enough to know he was injured and then he ended up dead, and everybody thought it was okay to not have a seat belt on him despite, you know, asking for a hospital after being found on the damn floor of the van, and even if they did check him he went from okay to literally shifting himself, and all of that is okay because no one at any time actually put any effort into checking on Gray.

That’s literally the reasoning: no one did a damn thing to actually figure out if any of this was okay, so it was okay. Ignorance is not just bliss, it’s also apparently a good defense if you’re a police department who arrests an innocent man and kills him while he’s in your custody. No one could’ve known Gray was injured, no one really needed to belt him in, no one could’ve known he was going to die, and nothing proved the rough ride occurred.

Law is not justice. I get that. And the prosecution indeed didn’t prove that it was a rough ride that killed Freddie Gray rather than a freak accident. But the circumstances around Freddie Gray’s death seem, like so many things as of late, to have no one held accountable. We live in an era where “mistakes were made” is more and more an unassailable defense for the privileged. Banks can defraud, but no person is charged. A war can be started, but no one was held to be at fault. A man can die after being rounded up by the cops, and no one is responsible.

Trust of institutions in America are at an all-time low, and this is why. No one is ever at fault, it seems.

What is Justice? The Supreme Court and Utah v. Strieff

Justice is not law, law is not justice

What is Justice?

In some small way I feel like the Supreme Court attempted to answer that in Utah v. Strieff. I think there are valuable lessons in it to consider, not only as regards justice and law but also the nature of the Supreme Court.

It’s no secret why Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion: this is a judgment with another chiseling away of rights largely hitting minority communities, and so having him write it offers some legitimacy. Thomas and Sotomayor each had something to share, and it’s an illustrative glimpse at the very plastic concept of justice.

For Thomas (and the majority), this was a technical and procedural question. What should police do? How should they do it? What complications arise, and how do they see them through? It’s a very minutiae-driven analysis about technical aspects of law.

For Sotomayor, justice is not a matter of attempting to tighten the not-quite-snug gears of process. Justice is a matter of aggregates, and the measures of the real world. By her measure (and those of the minority), justice is what is, not what ought to be.

There are advantages to either outlook: technical judgments provide clarity but don’t heavily consider downstream effects, whereas holistic measures avoid things like “separate but equal” but provide only fuzzy guidance for future issues.

Here I’d side with Sotomayor, but it isn’t like I don’t see the merit in what the majority is trying to do. This is why you want a diverse Supreme Court: there isn’t one way to look at these things and there often isn’t one measure of law or justice. There’s an art to all this and that art will necessarily be myopic and damaging if the Court is homogeneous.

Don’t Laugh at the Stupid: AI is going to make us all look stupid

When wealth can literally buy superhuman intelligence, what worth is human intelligence?

Pity the stupid. Seriously. They’re about the only people that are allowed to be derided publicly besides the overweight, and the overweight at least have the body acceptance campaign supporting them. Who comes to the defense of the stupid?

It actually matters, for reasons more immediately practicable than compassion and empathy. Why?

Robots. (Really, artificial intelligence)

See, the thing is, being smart is right now (and honestly, often) pretty in vogue because we still get to use it as a rough yardstick of worth in a competitive world no longer using the material grace of God or bloodlines as that measure. But that’s because being smart is scarce, and what is scarce is cool.

For a few generations now, in America anyway, smarts and wealth have been growing more correlated in a self-sorting process. There are reasons why – female empowerment in spousal selection and education both being predominant – and the current American meritocracy has been slowly pulling the ladder up behind them in that self-selection.

The end game of AI, though, is going to break that up. At first, the robots and AI are going to be replacing low-skill labor and the upper meritocracy won’t mind, but when investment bankers find that corporate conglomerates just need IT guys to keep the servers running and an HVAC system to cool the servers and everyone else is disposable, and what’s even more disruptive, you can just buy “smart” and it’s no longer scarce and you can download a hedge fund superstar or materials engineer if you have the gear to run them… the bottom is going to slowly rot out of the meritocracy and it’s going to turn into something much more plutocratic than I think America can be comfortable with. Wealth will finally be able to self-perpetuate financially without the messy middle process of making or keeping it.

If by that point we don’t have an infrastructure in place that recognizes that people have worth beyond their contributions to capitalism, well… we’re going to be finding out how generous the top 1% feel like being, and the answer is probably going to be what it is right now: not very.

Lack of accountability is the problem

The conditions for success in American politics are based on hate. That’s… suboptimal.

From the American Conservative, a well-written reminder that no one trusts our political institutions very much anymore. This is a pretty big issue: in America, the most common binding factor among supporters of candidate A is not that they like candidate A, it is that they hate candidate B. And if you’re not voting for a strong policy position, then you’re really only voting to let someone else pursue their own flavor of bad idea.

Functionally, the incentive for American politicians to think deeply or offer policy ideas founded on underlying principles is finishing and it wasn’t ever terribly strong to begin with. Their optimal strategy is to be not as hated as much as their opponent, which is a much different sort of environment to optimize within.

To add insult to injury, poor performance is almost never cause for replacement. In historic terms of enacting legislation, this Congress is the most inactive in a century, seemingly incapable of getting anything done – and this, with a single party in control of both the House and Senate. We’ve fought two wars for a decade+ and can’t seem to win them, declare a loss, or even just leave, yet the number of high-ranking officers that have been stripped of command for failure to perform is basically nil (though we do seem to fire them for sleeping around). There’s a case to be made that they’re not responsible, which is a reasonable point… but where is the CIA’s falling on the sword for poor intelligence? Or mea culpas from politicians forced to resign in disgrace? The NSA lies to Congress behind closed doors in committee and then again out in the open because they feel like they don’t need to tell anyone anything, other than the President, but we still have the USA PATRIOT act and Snowden as an exile so it isn’t like Congress has actually managed to do much in the meantime.

It’s no wonder that institutional trust is at an all-time low: our institutions are failing and have only managed to learn how to avoid punishment rather than learn from their mistakes, and the voting public is largely given the option of either being complicit in it by re-electing incumbents or selecting a replacement who promises to add to the dysfunction.

The greatest failing of democracy is that it foists upon the people the government they ask for.

Painting into racist rhetorical corners with Coulter and Trump

The argument from Coulter (and the pro-Trump right) is either 1, the Loony Left are racist and so is Donald Trump, or 2, the Loony Left is correct about White Supremacy in America and Donald Trump is being railroaded by a Mexican. Turns out both statements are wrong!

I don’t know why, but I’m always at least a little bit shocked at the breadth of what smart people can profess to believe. In this case, it’s Ann Coulter backing up Donald Trump, which really should surprise no one, and that goes double when it’s finding clever ways to make a point about how bad white folks have it these days.

It should surprise no one that Trump is a whiny asshole, nor should Coulter defending a whiny asshole be shocking either. But the rhetorical arguments she uses are worth dissecting, because it’s basically saying that you can’t have a racial critique of society in America without also letting people baselessly denigrate each other. Leave aside the fact that on its face, Coulter’s argument is either 1, the Loony Left are racist and so is Donald Trump, or 2, the Loony Left is correct about White Supremacy in America and Donald Trump is being railroaded by a Mexican. She doesn’t spend any time on that unmentioned conclusion because it’s embarrassing, and when you’re being paid to say provocative shit but you still have some ability to self-reflect you stop thinking once you hit your word quota for the day.

So, let’s take on the two points; 1, that there are meaningful racial critiques of justice and law to be made that aren’t racist, and 2, that Donald Trump is/is not full of shit (SPOILER: it’s the former).

  1. Judges are informed by their experiences. It’s why we don’t have federal judges with, say, no experience as a judge. That’s the easy call. The more interesting bit is that experience matters for all kinds of things, and that experience includes your ethnicity, your education, and generally what’s happened to you in life. There’s a reason why Plessy v Ferguson (that’s “separate but equal is okay”) was overturned: people’s experience between that ruling and later courts changed, and society decided that perhaps racial injustice is a thing that should be considered more deeply. Experience matters, and yes, you want diverse courts because there is no immaculate divine experience of the law that mortals channel into their rulings: courts made up of solely white educated liberals from the Northeast are not going to reflect the myriad experiences of life in America and that’s something you want to account for in your courts. There’s a reason you’re tried by a jury of your peers, and that experience of life is why. When an all-white jury is considered your peer group sometimes you can end up with statistically significant disparities in sentencing length and so that’s why appeals courts are a thing, and jury selection, and all that jazz.So, when someone (say a Supreme Court judge) thinks that having a different background is a good thing, she’s not professing the superiority of one outlook over another, she’s professing the utility of her own background in an arena that is largely white and male and lacking wider perspective.
  2. It is entirely different when you say, “because this person is Mexican they can’t judge me”, which is essentially what Trump was saying and what Coulter is defending here. And that difference is pretty large, because what Judge Curiel actually did is pretty straight-forward and that point seems to be lost. There are actual, formal things you can do if a judge is screwing you and Trump can afford them… but he isn’t disputing any of that. He didn’t like a ruling that looks solid, and so because he can’t win in court he’s going to just make a slur out of it. This is not Trump standing up to a power-hungry judge out of control, this is Trump getting a ruling he didn’t like and doing two nasty and dysfunctional things: 1, blaming that person rather than himself, and 2, deciding that the best, clearest reason why this judge ruled against him was because he was a Mexican (even though he isn’t).You know, if a judge ruled against me with bias and hate in his eyes because, I don’t know, he thought me some kind of virulent Communist pervert, and the ruling doesn’t pass the smell test and I find out that this guy is a John Bircher teetotaler celibate, then I might have some room in there to make hay. But if the judge issues a ruling and all my pricey lawyers shrug and move on to the next phase of the trial because it turns out the ruling is sound, and THEN I say it’s because the guy is an Italian, then clearly I’m unhinged and a whiny asshole.

I hope that both people that read this find it useful and everyone in America can now get on with being adults and selecting a coherent conservative opponent for Hillary Clinton in the fall.

UPDATE NOTE: the term “la raza” probably deserves mention. It does mean race, but it’s use is generally for Mexican-Americans or mestizos. It’s distinct from Hispanics in general, which is considered kind of a stuffy term. It’s a ethnic and cultural identifier, but is a lot more specific in application than an actual race; it’s more specific, like Afro-Cuban, than just “black”.

You’d have to be kind of ignorant of Chicano culture to think that la Raza is meant to generally imply superior genetic stock.

Researchers shocked to discover poor people are sapient, rational

Apparently they’re rational, thinking homo sapiens WTF

The self-serving narratives that define concepts like Meritocracy as a self-evident expression of worthiness, rather than a fluid sort of filter that encrypts class and race based sorting in a vernier of objectivity, are the sorts of narratives that can feed themselves for decades.

The altogether radical concept that poor people are, generally, as deserving and rational as anyone else, yet also more desperate and likely to make very rational yet unfortunate choices based on those entirely transient negative conditions they live in, resulting in antisocial decisions that reinforce the negative transient conditions they live in, is a lost one. Basically it’s easier to imagine the poor as deserving their desperate conditions than accept that but for the grace of God, there go I.

The myth of Meritocracy is alluring because it tells the ruling aristocracy that not only are they worthy, but those which have not yet ascended are unworthy. We can, of course, do better. There is a tremendous amount of wasted potential out there cloaked by the circumstances of being poor and these compassion-eroding narratives: the poor don’t work hard, they’re less intelligent, they’re ultimately less deserving.

The fact is that the poor suffer from a deleterious condition which truly does affect them and their ability to learn and make decisions and it is called “being poor”, and its solution is “not being poor”. The largest, most immediate hurdle to raising the poor up is their poverty itself, a cause and not a symptom; it is not some virtuous sortation mechanism nor an insurmountable obstacle… though that latter assertion is one I’ll have to leave for later.