Tag: <span>Clinton</span>

Is This Election Different?

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


When I started this blog I mentioned politics as one possible subject, but lately it seems to be the dominant subject. With the election of Trump perhaps that’s unavoidable. I have already said that I don’t know if everything will be okay, though I pointed at some early indications and structural factors which I thought looked encouraging. That was a couple of weeks ago, and you wouldn’t think that I’d already be changing my mind, but I am. In fact, I’m starting to get the feeling that everything won’t be okay.

First I should emphasis that this feeling is very nascent. Just a hint that things may be developing in a way I didn’t expect. Which ironically is exactly what you should expect. As I repeatedly emphasis you can’t predict the future, so, to resort to a cliche, you should expect the unexpected. Part of the reason why these developments are unexpected is that they arrive from an unexpected source. Allow me to explain. I, along with most people in America, expect to be surprised by Trump, but the feeling I’m describing has very little to do with Trump’s actions. So far he’s acting about as I figured. He’s appears to still be running his own Twitter account and making remarks that probably strike a majority of people as not being very presidential. He’s put forth some divisive figures for high level appointments (Bannon and Sessions being chief among them). Most of what he talked about on the campaign trail is still out there, though some of it has been softened, at least a little bit. In other words I see no reason, yet, to modify the assessment I made of Trump in my election post. Trump is not the reason I’m starting to think that things might not be okay. But the opposition to Trump is another matter.

Now this may sound like I’m opposed to any opposition to Trump, which I suppose if taken to it’s logical conclusion would mean that I’m a Trump supporter. Neither of these are true. I’m not opposed to opposition, I think having a vigorous debate has all manner of benefits, including better decisions, and clearer thinking in general. And if you have any doubts you can refer back to the two posts I did on freedom of speech. In other words, I think my full-throated support for freedom of speech is unambiguous.  And insofar as the opposition to Trump falls under the category of free speech, I support it. To the additional question of whether I’m a Trump supporter, I would describe my approach to Trump as more zen. There are things which happen that are beyond our ability to change. Who gets elected as president is one of those things. And freaking out about it has as much utility as freaking out about the weather. Which is not to say that you shouldn’t buy an umbrella.

Having come this far you may be confused. I seem to be simultaneously saying that the opposition to Trump worries me, but that also opposition is a healthy expression of freedom of speech. The resolution of this paradox is that I’m not talking about what’s happening right now I’m talking about the direction I fear things are headed. And I’m talking about when opposition moves from speech to something more concrete.

Obviously I considered the possibility that Trump might win, I would have bet against it, but the chances seemed great enough that I tried to model what it might be like. One obvious place to go when you’re attempting to understand something is to draw on past experience. And in this I was in luck. I had already lived through a time with a very unpopular conservative president who was hated by the left. His name was George W. Bush, and when I considered what the Trump presidency would be like, particularly what the liberal reaction to it would be, I figured it would look similar to opposition during the Bush presidency. It would be nasty, it would be everywhere, it would be filled with outrageous claims, and he would be the butt of basically all of the late night jokes, but after taking all of that into account, he would still be acknowledged, even if reluctantly, to be President. I should add, before continuing, that much of the criticism of Bush was completely justified, though sometimes the amount of criticism he drew for any given item appeared inversely proportional to the actual harm.  

Returning to the most recent election, it appears that things may be playing out differently. Now of course in all of this I’m trying to compare the immediate aftermath of the 2000 election with the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election. Not only is there the problem of distance, distortion and memory, but also in 2000 there was no Facebook, so what I consider a difference in the message my in fact be a difference in the medium. All that said, I don’t recall anyone urging people not to normalize the Bush presidency. (Of course at this point in 2000 no one was quite sure who would be president.) In 2000 people were mad about things, definitely, and there were certainly calls to get rid of the electoral college or to try and flip an elector or two. The same calls are happening now (though Hillary would need 38 faithless electors as compared to the three that Gore needed) but there is also lots of rhetoric of a kind I don’t recall hearing in 2000. Back then my feeling was that people accepted the result, they weren’t happy about it, given the chance they would have loved to impeach Bush, but they agreed that he was president, and treated him as such. I’m getting a different vibe out of things today. Let me give you an example of what I mean.

The first thing I came across which offered a hint to this difference was an article in Slate. It wasn’t critical of Trump, it was critical of Clinton, and not of how she ran her campaign, but of how conciliatory her concession speech was. The article didn’t stop there, it moved on to calling the speech dangerous and even went so far as to say that Clinton might mainly be remembered, “more than anything else, for the toxic, dangerous, and deceptive concession speech she delivered on Wednesday.”

Wait, what? Her concession speech is going to be more important than being first lady? Senator from New York? Secretary of State? While I suppose that’s possible I think we may have wandered into the realm of hyperbole. And when you’re getting that level of outrage about Clinton, you can only imagine how the article writer feels about Trump himself.

As a source for this claim the author drew on the opinions of a Russian dissident, author of a previous article titled, Autocracy: Rules for Survival. The basic claim of both articles is that Trump is a tyrant in the making who will dismantle the judiciary, muzzle the press and turn the police into virtual death squads, and that only by continuing to fight him tooth and nail and most of all by refusing normalize him, that is treat him as a normal president winning a typical election, is there any hope.

I’ve mentioned the word “normalize” now a couple of times and this appears to be the favorite term for describing what we definitely should not be doing now that the election is over. Again, I could be misremembering or overlooking things, but this feels qualitatively different than when Bush was elected. I certainly don’t remember anyone criticizing Gore when he finally conceded for being too nice. And a search around the terms “george bush” and “normalize” brings up hardly anything, while doing the same search on Trump brings up all the articles I already linked to plus thousands more. In other words, in answer to the question posed in the blog title, this election is starting to appear qualitatively different than even the hotly contested 2000 election.

But what are people hoping to achieve when they warn against any attempts to normalize Trump? And how is this different than the derision and hate that Bush was subjected to? This is where we start to get into the realm of speculation, and as I’ve have said, it’s just a feeling, I could easily be wrong, but it also represents a hypothesis, something that should be kept out and occasionally compared against reality to see if the events and facts which have developed in the interim support this theory or are pointing in a different direction.

In any case, as I read it, when people caution against treating either Trump or his presidency as normal they are make a judgement call that he is so bad that extraordinary measures are called for. Extraordinary measures like seceding. I already mentioned the idea of California seceding in my post about the election, but in this context it seems like yet another way that this election is different. Of course, you might retort, that Texas was talking of seceding long before California and mostly in response to Obama (though they did pre-emptively bring up the threat again as a possible response to Clinton winning.) This fact doesn’t make things better, it makes things worse. And opens up the idea that it’s not just the election of Trump that is different but that things are moving in an alarming direction, possibly even in the absence of Trump.

So, yes, I think it’s safe to say that this election is different than the 2000 election. Trump’s presidency will be more divisive and uglier than Bush’s and it’s becoming apparent that the level of push-back and rage is greater than any modern election. Of course the divisiveness and outrage is not greater than in any previous election. Perhaps when I mentioned the potential secession of Texas and California your mind already went in this direction, but if you’re looking for a more divisive election I would direct you to the election of Abraham Lincoln. Indisputably that election was more divisive, but comparing this election to the election of 1860 should not bring any comfort, and in fact this is the situation that has been gnawing away at the edge of my consciousness.  

Libertarians are fond of talking about how every law ever passed is ultimately enforced at the end of a gun barrel. In a similar fashion at some point if two groups just can’t agree, then, ultimately, the issue is going to be decided by force. Oliver Wendell Holmes, perhaps the best known of all the Supreme Court justices, said as much:

Between two groups that want to make inconsistent kinds of world I see no remedy but force.

Historically this is how it has been. All important issues have ultimately been decided by the shedding of blood. Recent history is an anomaly, and not even much of an anomaly if you consider what’s currently taking place in Syria. However if we restrict ourselves to just the US, we still only have to go back as far as the Civil War, before we see the roll of bloodshed in deciding between two inconsistent worldviews.

Insofar as things aren’t decided by bloodshed, it’s because we have replaced that idea with the idea of settling issues through the will of the people and the rule of law, but if you decide that this time, with this election, that you’re no longer going to follow the system (and I’m aware that Clinton won the popular vote, but recall that’s not the system) then you’re implicitly opting to decide things by force. Perhaps you disagree, and think that this one time you can ignore the results of the system, achieve the desired outcome of keeping Trump from being President, and that everything will be fine. If this is what you’re thinking I would say that at best this line of thinking is delusional and at worst it’s deadly. Things are decided either by force or by the rule of law, there’s not some hidden third option. If you abandon the rule of law than, you’re choosing force, even if you don’t realize it.  Which is not to say that this automatically means a second Civil War, but you’re definitely entering into uncharted territory, where at a minimum things are going to be decided by the threat of force.

You may counter that civil society is already only maintained by the threat of force. However, by making laws which restrict and codify the use of force, we greatly minimize its use. Which is not to say that force isn’t sometimes, or even often, used in an inconsistent and unfair manner. The rule of law isn’t perfect, but it’s vastly preferable to the alternative methods, particularly when you’re talking methods which have historically been used for deciding who is going to be king (or in our case president).

To return to the Oliver Wendell Holmes quote are we dealing with two groups who both want a different kind of world? Do we have Texas secessionists on one side and California secessionists on the other? Does the election of Trump mark the beginning of a permanent split between those two worlds? These are the thoughts I’ve been having over the last couple of weeks.

You can judge for yourself whether there’s anything to worry about, whether we’re seeing the beginning of a great schism or whether things will eventually normalize over the objections of a vocal minority. In case it’s not clear, my own opinion is that it’s far too early to tell, though some of the trends are worrying.

For the rest of the post I want to focus on what to do if this is in fact what’s happening. What are the current remedies if we’ve finally reached a point past which no compromise is possible? If our current course is leading us to either a giant secession crisis, or worse still a second Civil War, is there some way to avoid that?

As usual I offer the caveat that individually there’s very little we can do about politics or the weather, and probably the best course of action is to make sure you have an adequate stock of umbrellas. That said it’s still a subject worth discussing.

To start let’s examine our options if we decide that our highest value is to keep the country together. This was basically the thinking during the Civil War so there is some precedent for it. If this is what we decide then we have three possible strategies.

The first strategy is that of the status quo. Sure there are currently some disagreements, and some anger. But perhaps rather than looking all the way back to the Civil War, a better example is the Civil Rights Era. And a better analogy for the 2016 election is the 1968 election, the last time a third party candidate won any electoral votes. Times seemed pretty tumultuous then as well. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968 and the country was convulsed with race riots. It appeared that the gains made by the 1964 Civil Rights Act might be overturned, and yet, even though Nixon was elected President the country stayed together, the wounds eventually healed and we made it through. Under this strategy, perhaps you agree that things look ugly, but you don’t think any major changes need to be made. Everything will eventually work itself out, the rule of law and compromise will eventually win out in the end

But what if you pursue this strategy and it doesn’t work out? The rifts keep widening, things get worse. States vote to secede, and the country starts breaking apart. This brings us to our second strategy, if you can’t keep things together by the normal methods then the only other alternative is to keep things together through force, and just like in 1861 you go to war. In other words this isn’t exactly a different strategy, but an extension of the status quo, let’s-keep-everything-together strategy. Which further means that if the initial, trust-in-the-status-quo strategy doesn’t work out then you might very well find yourself in a situation where bloodshed is the only option. I would hope that there would be no bloodshed, but if you really are intent on keeping the two worlds together, whether your goal is to preserve the union or to dictate a set of laws and policies to an unwilling minority, then eventually it will come to bloodshed.

If you have doubts about the status quo, and if you don’t like the idea of a second Civil War, then you probably aren’t thrilled with either of the first two options, and you may be eager to hear what the third strategy is for keeping the country together. I’ve already said that there are two ways to decide something, you can decide things through the use of force or you can decide them via a system of law. If we reject force then we have to do something about the system. Right now the system is dominated by the federal government. The bulk of the tax burden is determined at the federal level, as is environmental regulation, discrimination laws, the legality of abortion and same-sex marriage, not to mention educational standards, healthcare and entitlements. In that list there’s a lot for California and Texas to disagree about, but what if there wasn’t. It’s interesting and ironic that so much is determined by the “federal” government, because under a truly federal system you would expect most of the aforementioned issues to be decided at the state level, which would allow California and Texas to be different, but that’s not the case.

An argument about whether federalism is actually dead, is beside the point. Whether federalism has died or just evolved, the point is not to argue semantics, but to figure out ways in which Texas and California could both exist in the same nation without Texas seceding if Clinton is elected and California seceding when Trump get’s elected. And more importantly to keep the country together without having to resort to force. I know that for many people the idea of allowing individual states to make their own environmental regulations, their own decision on same sex marriage, and their own labor laws is terrifying, but is it more terrifying than going to war in order to just have one standard for all those things? I personally think that, when the total number of deaths is taken into account, it may have been a mistake to not just let the South secede, but if we were going to have a big war over something at least the elimination of slavery was a cause worth fighting for. Are the issues which divide us today similarly important? I’m personally not willing to have my son’s fight and possible die in a war to keep either California or Texas in the country. And I assume a lot of people feel similarly.

This brings us to the final possible strategy. The strategy to pursue if preserving the USA isn’t your highest goal. This strategy might be most usefully described as the right of exit. If California wants to leave, then let them, same with Texas, same with New Jersey. Obviously this may mean that some people aren’t as happy being in Texas as they once were when the Texas was obligated to follow all the federal regulations. They should have a right of exit as well. I don’t know that the right of exit has a corresponding right of entry (a topic which is already controversial), but I assume that it would work itself out. Of course this would be an experiment on a massive scale, and who knows what would happen, though Europe may provide a preview of this process if things continue to head the way they’ve been.

Of all the strategies I think a return to a greater degree of federalism and state autonomy would work out best in the long run. Not only is this what the founders had in mind, but I think it provides the best trade off between joining the two different kinds of worlds, while avoiding most of the chaos occasioned by a completely break up of the United States. That said of all the possible strategies I’ve described it may be the most difficult to actually implement. Rolling back the trend of a century is unquestionably more difficult than just maintaining the status quo, and probably more difficult than the other two options as well.

This post has engaged in a lot of speculation, and as with many things I write about hopefully none of this will happen. Hopefully, the status quo will work, Trump will be a great president, and everything will be rainbows and unicorns. If I had to guess, I think we’ll survive the Trump presidency without having to worry about a second civil war, or states seceding, or whether we should have been trying to restore federalism this whole time. But even if we do, I don’t like the direction things are headed.


The Value of Free Speech

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I used to watch Sesame Street. As I recall it was in black and white, probably because the entire world was still black and white back then. It could also have been because we were poor. In any case, one of the recurring features of Sesame Street was one of these things is not like the other. It even had a song to go with it, which I can easily recall without any effort, such is the power of childhood indoctrination. I would assume that most of my readers are familiar with the segment, but for those who aren’t, the way it worked is they would show four things and three of them would be similar and one would clearly be different. An example might be a chalkboard with three “2”’s and one “W” or an alarm clock next to a knife, fork and spoon. I assume you get the idea or, like me, saw Sesame Street as a child. If not, it’s too late because we are about to play “One of These Things”!

Of course to start with I need to provide you with the “things” (I’m going to cheat somewhat an only provide three things.)

1- Russia

2- United States of America

3- China

And to really get us in the mood here’s the song:

One of these things is not like the others,

One of these things just doesn’t belong,

Can you tell which thing is not like the others

By the time I finish my song?

Did you guess which thing was not like the others?

Did you guess which thing just doesn’t belong?

If you guessed this one is not like the others,

Then you’re absolutely right!

Did you guess the USA? If so then, as promised, you’re absolutely right! I know this edition of “One of These Things” was not quite as obvious as the alarm clock and silverware, but also we’re not six anymore either, so hopefully we can expect some deeper thinking. But why is the United States the odd man out? Why is our country the one thing that’s not like the others? On the surface the answer is easy, perhaps even trivial, Russia and China are authoritarian states ruled by a single individual. The USA is a not. (Unless Trump wins and all of the most extreme fears of the anti-trumpers come true.) But why is this? Or more importantly how did it come about?

I think you’ll find that on paper the actual governmental structure of the other two countries is not that different from that of the USA. Russia and China both have elections and they both have legislatures. Russia has the Duma and China has the National People’s Congress. They both have what amounts to a Bill of Rights. Russia has the Rights and Freedoms of Man and Citizen and the Chinese have their Constitution which has sections on Democracy and Minority Rights. They both claim to have an independent judicial system, charged with impartially interpreting the law. Russia’s is modeled on the German and French system, while China’s contains protections like the right against self incrimination, and the suppression of evidence which was obtained illegally.

If the difference isn’t in how the government is organized perhaps it’s somewhere else. Maybe the US has a better economy? That’s possible, but China has, or shortly will pass the US as the biggest economy. And if you’re more focused on per capita GDP, Saudi Arabia is basically tied with the US on that measure but they’re actually more authoritarian than China and Russia. The US, China and Russia all have a strong militaries and nukes to boot, so that’s not a difference. It also can’t be the size of the country, or the number of people, or the latitude. So what is it?

If you remember the end of my last episode then you already know where this is headed. I would argue that a large part of the difference comes down to the level of free speech (and free expression in general) in each country. If we look at the World Press Freedom Index we find that the USA is 41st out of 180 countries while Russia is 148th and China is 176th! I think 41st is still disappointing, but it’s obviously a lot better than 148th or 176th.

It is not lost on me that this could be a chicken and egg question. Which came first the authoritarianism or the speech restrictions? Or perhaps more accurately I could be confusing correlation with causation. Restrictions on speech could accompany authoritarianism without necessary causing it. We’ve definitely seen it come about even in situations where freedom of expression was relatively unrestrained. As far as I can tell the time between the collapse of the Soviet Union and Putin assuming power was a time of relatively free expression (unfortunately the index I was using only goes back as far as 2002, at which time Russia ranked 121st out of 139). But even if speech restrictions don’t cause authoritarianism it’s indisputable that they perpetuate it. And that’s what I really want to get into.

As I said, I’m not entirely sure how good freedom of the press and freedom of speech are at stopping bad things from happening. I would argue that they’re a lot better at uncovering bad things once they have happened. Take the current election as an example. I should mention that I try to be objective here at “We Are Not Saved”, but it’s possible I’ve picked on Clinton more than Trump, so we’ll pick on Trump for awhile. At this point there is a large group of people worrying that Trump is going to be bad news if he gets elected. People are using the term fascist and even comparing him to Hitler, and yet as just a few days ago Trump was polling slightly ahead of Clinton in at least one national poll. In other words despite these warnings there are a lot of people who still think he’ll be a better president than Clinton. And you know what, it’s hard to tell what kind of President he’ll be until he actually is President. Campaigning is a lot different than actually being in office and it’s hard to say what kind of president Trump will be (in fact I think it’s particularly hard with Trump.) All the people who are sounding the warning could be right, and he could be terrible, or he could surprise everyone. But if he does become president and he is terrible, we’ll hear about it (oh boy, will we hear about it). But only because we have free speech and freedom of press. In short, you would hope free speech would be some protection from even electing potential dictators, but even if it isn’t, it has a, potentially, still greater role, that of uncovering and deterring the authoritarian impulse after an election has happened.

For the moment let’s assume Trump is the second coming of Hitler. Or that he at least aspires to be. How does he go from wanting to be Hitler to actually being Hitler. The first step is getting elected President. And while it would have been nice if free speech had prevented that, for the purposes of our argument we’re assuming that it didn’t. But just being made President doesn’t make him Hitler, he has to start doing evil things, and if he starts making all the Muslims wear crescent moon armbands, we’ll hear about it, and presumably do something. The best way for him to get away with doing evil stuff is if we don’t hear about it.

It may be overly simplistic to say that free speech is all that prevents Trump (or anyone) from becoming Hitler, but that’s only because speech itself is so complicated. Setting aside the difficulties of keeping people from finding out about Trump’s Hitlerish acts, if it were possible and people actually could be kept in the dark it would be very effective in suppressing dissent. It’s true that in addition to the protection of free speech that we also have Congress and the Supreme Court to protect us. But as I mentioned above Russia and China also have legislatures and courts and it hasn’t prevented Putin or Xi Jinping from being authoritarian. Also, closer to home, we’ve discovered that it’s relatively trivial to gridlock Congress, and with the next President possibly appointing four new justices, I’m not so sure the Supreme Court will be of much help either.

Additionally don’t forget the vast expansion of executive power which has happened over the last century or so, and the President’s unique influence over the military. (Particularly since congress was cut out of the process of declaring war.)  You may be thinking that I am saying that Trump could stage some sort of military coup. While anything’s possible that seems pretty unlikely, but I have much more confidence in the ability of free and open speech to keep him in check than relying on every member of the military to remember their oath to the constitution, or in Trump’s inability to use the military in some other way to boost his popularity. Recall that Putin boosted his approval ratings both by using the military in Chechnya and in his recent annexation of Crimea.

Perhaps the example of the aspiring Hitler has convinced you of the importance of free speech, or perhaps you were convinced already. However, it is almost certain that however important you think speech is that it you don’t believe that it should be entirely unrestricted. Most people, at a minimum, would argue for a ban on child pornography, and I am no exception. But this still leaves us needing to draw a line somewhere between speech that prevents a second Hitler, and child pornography. Where should that line be drawn? A lot depends on the value provided by certain forms of speech and expression. Child pornography provides zero value and causes incalculable harm (to be honest it makes me uncomfortable even typing the words.) While preventing a second Hitler is one of the more valuable things that we can do, as it prevents incalculable harm.

At first glance one straightforward way to approach the problem would just be to figure out at which point the net benefit of speech is negative and draw the line there. Unfortunately while that may appear to be a straightforward solution it is anything but. For one thing, as I already mentioned, logistically it’s very hard to do, particularly in the age of the internet. That said, it’s not impossible. I think censorship by the Chinese government has been more effective than the Information Wants to be Free Crowd would like to admit. Of course that effectiveness has only been possible through a huge degree of centralization, something most Americans would strenuously object to if for no other reason than its potential for abuse (which the Chinese have more than adequately demonstrated.) But for the moment let’s move past the logistical difficulties and just focus on the thorny problem of determining the ultimate value of any given bit of speech

I hear a lot of people arguing that as the internet has increased the quantity of speech that the quality of speech has declined. As the saying goes, on the internet, no one knows that you’re a dog and all opinions seem to carry equal weight. People like to point to the good old days when Walter Cronkite would soberly report the evening news in an objective and dispassionate fashion, with none of the fear-mongering, conspiracy theories, speculation or innuendo of the internet. And yet, this doesn’t seem to have worked all that much better. To put things in context, Walter Cronkite became the evening anchor at CBS in 1962 and yet in 1964 we had the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, one of the more egregious examples of the government misleading people, a cover up with arguably very serious consequences. And yet as far as I’m aware no major news outlets of the day managed to uncover the truth, which was that no attack had occurred and that Secretary McNamara had distorted the evidence in an effort to get Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

I can’t say for certain how the Gulf of Tonkin would have played out in this day and age, but I think it’s safe to say that an accurate assessment of what happened would be out there somewhere. And it might even have been pretty easy to find. On the other hand there would have been a lot of false and misleading speculation as well. And even if an accurate description of events had been out there and easy to find, you still would have to recognize that it was the truth, sifting it out from all the other theories which would have emerged. My sense of the situation, therefore, is that we are more likely to have access to accurate information, but only because we have access to more information, both true and false. Therefore one question we need to ask ourselves is whether it is better to have the truth out there somewhere, but buried in a thousand blogs and a million Facebook posts, or is it better to not have access to the truth at all?

Let’s turn from examining how free speech played out (or didn’t as the case may be) in the age of Cronkite to examining how it played out in the age of the internet, using the example of the Clinton email controversy. You may from this assume that I’m done picking on Trump, but in reality you could use any scandal or controversy as an example. I use the email controversy because it’s the biggest item of news at the moment and it represents a real free speech issue with some people arguing that FBI Director Comey is a hero and other people casting him as a villain.

For the purposes of our thought experiment let’s further assume that the email controversy would not have come out in the age of Cronkite. Obviously I can’t say that for sure (though they didn’t have email, so that’s one argument) certainly Watergate came to light and resulted in the resignation of Nixon, but I think the fact that Johnson and McNamara were able to cover up the Gulf of Tonkin, arguably far more serious that anything people have even imagined Clinton doing, leads me to believe that there is a good chance that Clinton’s email issues would not have come out at all. Plus, once again if you can’t imagine a scenario under which Clinton’s email issues would not have eventually seen the light of day, pick one of the other dozens of controversies and scandals that have come out in this election and surely out of all of them one or more would not have come out in the pre-internet era. In other words if you’re uncomfortable with using Clinton’s emails, then use the scandal of your choice as an example.

This leaves us with four possibilities with respect to Clinton’s email controversy, and more particularly their impact:

1- The accusations will cost her the presidency but they shouldn’t.

2- The accusations will cost her the presidency and they should.

3- The accusations won’t cost her the presidency and they shouldn’t have.

4- The accusations won’t cost her the presidency but they should have.

When we examine these possibilities it becomes clear that only the first reflects a situation where too much free speech was the problem. Here the accusations should not have kept her from the presidency and yet they did.

The second possibility is a triumph of free speech. This is free speech working as intended, the accusations reflected something bad enough that she shouldn’t have been president. And that’s what happened.

The third possibility would have to be taken as evidence that people can handle all the free speech we have and then some. That despite the enormous coverage given the controversy, people correctly intuited that it shouldn’t keep her from being President.

The fourth possibility is hard to view in any other way than as a failure caused by too little free speech. If the accusations should have cost her the presidency but didn’t, then why didn’t they. Probably because the true extent was never known.

Of course speaking of never knowing, while we will know on November 9th (unless something crazy happens) whether Clinton is President, we may never know if the accusations flowed from something serious enough to disqualify her from the presidency.

Out of all these possibilities only number one is an example of there being too much free speech, but of course that’s also the one that Clinton supporters probably find most alarming. In fact if Trump does win this will almost certainly be the explanation that many people offer. That the email controversy and in particular the latest revelations, cost her the presidency and they shouldn’t have.

For many of these people the true tragedy will not be that Clinton lost, but that Trump won. And given their fear and loathing of Trump it will appear, in retrospect, that restricting his speech and the speech of his supporters would have not only been justified, but patriotic, particularly if they think that too much free speech was the problem. Of course as always we have to ask who would have implemented these restrictions? And how can we be sure that they wouldn’t be abused, either now or later? To return to the subject of my last episode, Facebook and Twitter could have applied speech restrictions and it would have been legal, and it may, if Trump ended up as bad as they feared, have saved the country. Surely this justifies a few restrictions?

But look back to where we started this episode, to the key difference between Russia, China and the USA. Free speech is our best protection against authoritarianism and that includes Trump’s. Any weakening of it, even in service of what appears to be noble goals, makes it that much easier to get rid of free speech entirely when it becomes inconvenient. The fact that censorship and authoritarianism go hand in hand is not some weird coincidence. It’s only by eroding free speech that authoritarianism can flourish. Therefore any erosion, however legal, however justified, can make it that much easier to do away with free speech entirely when the time comes. Also it’s important to remember that whenever one “side” uses a tool they make it that much easier for the other “side” to use that tool when the end up in power.

To phrase it another way do we want to mangle free speech to prevent Trump from becoming President, and risk having him become president anyway? Only now in addition whatever harm he causes as President we’ve given him a precedent of free speech restrictions to use on top of that. Or do we want to keep the principle of free speech as strong as possible knowing that it’s our best defence against whatever shenanigans he might try to pull? Even if in the short term our defence of free speech makes it more likely for him to be elected?

This is an important point to emphasis. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, the New York Times and any other newspaper you care to name could pull out all the stops and refuse to give Trump any positive coverage (they may already be doing that) and this could not only fail to stop him from becoming President, but make the situation worse if he does become President. In fact they may already be making the situation worse. Any accurate assessment of Trump’s popularity would have to take into account that a huge amount of his support comes from people who are angry at the censorship they already perceive. As an example, it’s entirely possible that things like shadowbanning Scott Adams help Trump more than they hurt him.

At the end it boils down the ancient trade-off between short-term and long term gains. It’s entirely possible that certain restrictions on speech would be beneficial, as this most crazy of all elections nears its end. (Okay 1860 was probably crazier, but who remembers that.) I certainly don’t claim to be wise enough to know what those restrictions would be or even which side to apply them to. But, I do know, that free speech occupies such an important defensive position that any long term weakening in service of short term goals is a potentially fatal mistake.

We’ve gone so long without any serious censorship (certainly nothing to rival Russia and China) that I think we no longer worry about it. For many people the idea of the United States descending into authoritarianism appears as probable as Elvis being found alive (he would be 81, nearly 82), but I assure you that it’s not. Free speech isn’t free, it’s costly, and yes, with things like child pornography (there’s that phrase again) there should be restrictions, but we should be very careful about those restrictions, even, if not particularly, when it comes to stuff we hate. As expressed so memorably by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.:

…if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.


Sports, the Sack of Baghdad and the Upcoming Election

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


When I created this podcast I decided that I wouldn’t shy away from controversial topics. And when people talk about topics to avoid, the first topics they mention are politics and religion. Having already covered the latter I decided that maybe it’s time to tackle the former. I’m a big political junkie, though perhaps it’s more accurate to say I’m a big history junkie, and insofar as politics is a subcategory of history I love politics. Conventions and debates, other than a few phrases here and there, are not history, they’re political theater, and so, with some rare exceptions, I don’t bother watching them, so don’t ask me what I thought of Trump’s speech or Obama’s (or Scott Baio’s for that matter). In my defense, I don’t think either conventions or debates have much power to influence the actual election results. I know that some people will argue that the Nixon-Kennedy debate swung things to Kennedy. Perhaps it did, but I was 11 years away from being born so I couldn’t have watched it even if I had wanted to.

People might also mention the 2000 election, arguing, probably correctly, that even a slight push in one direction would have given the election to Gore, and of course a slight push in the other direction would have kept it from being decided by the Supreme Court. And this is where we start to see the difference between history and politics. I’m glad it was close, because the drama and uncertainty that came with that turned it from just another election into history. Election night in 2000 was one of the most exciting nights of my life, and it only got more exciting as it became clear how tight things actually were.

I bring all this up because I think differentiating politics from history is important. For one thing, politics is very short term. Perhaps a metaphor would help illustrate my point, an election is like watching a football game. If you’re political, you really want your team to win and you really want the other team to lose. Passions are high, and it doesn’t matter what your team does, you still want them to crush the other guys, and it really doesn’t matter what the other side does you still really want them to be crushed. As an example, the BYU-Utah rivalry is big in my area, and one of my neighbors is a huge Utah fan. At one point I was talking to him about a recent game and I said I wanted it to be close and exciting. He vehemently disagreed, he wants Utah to win in a blowout. That’s the difference between politics and history. If you’re strictly political it’s all about your team winning, regardless of how uninteresting it is. If your interests are more historical, then, to extend the metaphor, you’re more interested in watching a last minute come-from behind touchdown, regardless which team does it. In other words, something like the 2000 recount.

Another example, also involving football, involves a BYU fan this time. This was back in the early to mid 2000’s when the memory of the Lavell Edwards years were still fresh. As I was talking to this fan, he mentioned, in all seriousness, that BYU fans sometimes called BYU “The Lord’s Team”. I made the joke that it was dangerous to bring religion into things because if the Good Lord did care about college football (and, I added, I was pretty sure he didn’t) it was clear that he was Catholic, not Mormon, since historically Notre Dame was a better team than BYU. I was surprised by the vehemence of his reaction, though in retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have been. He claimed that BYU was the better program. I said, you can’t just look at the last few decades when Lavell Edwards was the coach. You have to look at the whole history of the program, unless you want to argue that the Good Lord didn’t start paying attention to things until 1972. Despite pointing this out he refused to budget. I sent him a link to a site that declared Notre Dame to be the all time best football program (In the intervening years Alabama has passed them, currently BYU is 66th behind Utah who’s 37th), and he wasn’t swayed. This was politics. BYU was the best program/team/university ever, and nothing was going to change his opinion.

This is where I think we are today. We’ve been on top for awhile. People are really invested in the Democratic-Republican rivalry. They have their team and all they care about is winning. They’re way more fixated on whether someone plagiarized a speech, or said the wrong thing in emails, or seems to be too friendly with Russia (or whether someone threw a punch or dumped beer on the quarterback’s family) than parallels between now and the last time there was a strong populist candidate, or what kind of agreements we made with Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed, or how the situation in the South China Sea may resemble the situation before World War I (or whether it took 20 years for BYU to win their first game against Utah.) Perhaps this is good, perhaps it’s a waste of time to worry about things that happened decades ago. Perhaps you consider examining previous black swans a waste of time when Trump just barely said something ridiculous (again). But whether you worry about black swans and catastrophes or not they’re going to happen. To paraphrase the old quote attributed to Trotsky, “You may not be interested in catastrophes, but catastrophes are interested in you.” And when they are, understanding things beyond just the “Lavell Edwards” era, is going to come in handy.

As an example of this, I have a theory of history which I call “Whatever you do, don’t let Baghdad get sacked.” You may think this is in reference to one of the recent gulf wars, but actually I’m referring the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 (Genghis had been dead for nearly 40 years at this point but the Mongols were still really scary.) This incident may have been one of the worst preventable disasters in history. Somewhere between 200,000 and 2 million people died. Anyone who loves books always shudders when you bring up the loss of the Library of Alexandria, but in the sack of Baghdad we have an equally great library being destroyed. Contemporary accounts said that “the waters of the Tigris ran black with ink from the enormous quantities of books flung into the river and red from the blood of the scientists and philosophers killed.” Even though it happened centuries ago people will say that Baghdad still hasn’t recovered. I don’t know what dominated the thinking of the Abbasid Caliphate in the years before Baghdad was sacked. Perhaps, like us, they argued about taxes, or fought amongst themselves, or worried about foreigners. Perhaps there was even someone who said that they should do whatever it takes to appease the Mongols. If they did I see no evidence of it.

The sack of Baghdad was a black swan, a big one. And the whole course of history is different because it happened. Of all the things that the Abbasid Caliphate did, (or perhaps in this case didn’t do) this is what’s remembered 1000 years later.  Perhaps judging them by that standard is harsh, but what other standard should we judge them by? If the point of government is not to prevent your capital from being sacked, your rulers from being killed, your treasure from being carried away and your women from being raped, then what is its point?

As I said, whatever the Abbasid Caliphate did, it was the wrong thing. Now obviously I’m operating with perfect hindsight, but this takes us back to antifragility. It’s true that you can’t predict the future, but there are things that you can do to limit your exposure to these gigantic catastrophes, these major black swans. And that’s what governments are for.

To put this into terms we can understand. If we end up in a nuclear war with Russia or China whatever else we were focused on, student loans, poverty, Black Lives Matter, etc. it was the WRONG THING. Forget 1000 years from now, all that people will remember in 4 years if the next president gets us into a nuclear war is that. As I said nothing else will matter.

It’s not just nuclear war, there are lots of other things which could end up being a preventable Black Swan that in retrospect makes the petty arguments we’re having about immigration and email seem laughable, if they’re remembered at all. But for the moment let’s focus our attention on nuclear war, because I think some useful ideas might come out that discussion.

At first glance you might think that there’s not much difference between the two candidates on this issue. In fact you might even give the edge to the democrats particularly since Obama, at least at the beginning of his term spent a lot of time working to eliminate nuclear weapons for which, (along with his ability to not be George Bush) he was given the Nobel Peace Prize. But of course the point is that no one wants nuclear war. No one is going to campaign on a platform of nuking Russia. Consequently if we want to examine the candidates on this issue you have to take a few steps back. Where should we look if we’re worried about nukes? There is of course the possibility of a terrorist nuke, or perhaps in it’s death throes North Korea might set off a nuke or two. Both of these would be pretty bad, but, one there’s not a lot we can do about them and two, while they would definitely be giant black swans I think they would only be really impactful in the short term. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t be paying attention to this area, but there’s a limited amount we can do. No, if we’re really trying to prevent the sack of Baghdad we should be looking at China or Russia.

How, then, do the two major candidates (I’ll get to third party candidates later) compare on this issue? Well it’s not something that comes up a lot. At this point in the election there’s been a lot more focus on whether Trump is really as good of a businessman as he claims to be or whether Clinton was being stupid or corrupt when she ran all of her email through a private server, than any discussion of the dangers of a nuclear exchange with the Russians. Of course the Russians do come up. 20,000 DNC emails were released and various people have accused the Russians of being behind it, as part of that they have accused Trump of being too cozy with Putin. This is generally viewed as a negative, but from the perspective of avoiding the big war, this might actually be a good thing.

However, if you dig you can find some illuminating things. No real smoking guns, but it does appear that Clinton definitely leans one way and Trump obviously leans another. Let’s start with Clinton. Clinton appears to be an interventionist. She pushed for intervention in Libya. She appears to have wanted to intervene in Syria as well. On the bigger and scarier issues she is reportedly very hawkish with Russia. She apparently has compared Putin to Hitler. And by the way, on that point, she’s completely and totally wrong. Not because Putin is nicer or better than Hitler but because unlike Hitler, Putin. Has. Nukes. When it comes to China Clinton doesn’t appear to do any better.

Turning to Trump, if anything people feel that he’s too close to Putin, as I already mentioned, but then there are his comments about NATO. And here there is an interesting discussion to be had. A few months ago Trump gave an interview to the new york times and as part of the interview he said that he would be less willing to defend our NATO and East Asian allies at the current level without greater financial contributions from them. The interview rambles a bit, but these appear to be the key quotes:

If we cannot be properly reimbursed for the tremendous cost of our military protecting other countries, and in many cases the countries I’m talking about are extremely rich…

With massive wealth. Massive wealth. We’re talking about countries that are doing very well. Then yes, I would be absolutely prepared to tell those countries, “Congratulations, you will be defending yourself.”

In taking that position would Trump increase or decrease the chances of a nuclear war? In the immediate and unequivocal judgment of many this position dramatically increased the chances of war. The article in Vox was typical of the reactions:

Wednesday night, Donald Trump said something that made a nuclear war between the United States and Russia more likely. With a few thoughtless words, he made World War III — the deaths of hundreds of millions of people in nuclear holocaust — plausible.

I disagree with this assessment. Of course it’s hard to know what will set off a war, and I think World War III was already plausible. But let’s dissect the core idea of whether Trump increased the odds of war with that statement.

The first thing Trump is claiming is that the countries we’re protecting are wealthy countries who can probably pay more for their own protection if such protection is required. This is true. He’s also talking in more broad terms about the US being over-extended. Whether the US is currently overextended or not is up for debate, but what is not up for debate is that being overextended is a significant contributing factor in the falls of all previous great empires.

The second thing to consider is that when he tells NATO nations that they can defend themselves he’s talking about ignoring the collective defense clause (Article 5) of the original treaty. Now in general I’m in favor of following treaties and doing what we say we’re going to do, but NATO has extended well beyond its original purpose, and well beyond its original members, and maybe re-examining it isn’t such a bad idea. But of course the writer at Vox and many others think that questioning it is just the first step towards nuclear war. But is that actually the case, does Trump’s position make war more likely?

At the moment there are 28 members of NATO. If any of them go to war with Russia than the US goes to war with Russia. If we kicked some of the member nations out as Trump seems to be suggesting doesn’t this literally make a war between the US and Russia less likely? Now I’m not saying that it makes a war between, say, Russia and Estonia less likely (Though it wouldn’t be much of a war…) I’m just saying it makes the war we’re trying to prevent, the war the Vox article specifically mentions less likely. Honestly, and I’m sure the author feels like he’s fighting the good fight, it actually just sounds like he’s just looking for any excuse to demonize Trump.

Speaking of Estonia, I’m a big fan of Estonia. I actually applied for e-residency there, but I’m almost positive that if Russia wants it, it’s not worth using nukes to keep them from getting it. Also when you think about Estonia it leads naturally to a thought experiment. Imagine that in the next few years that Texas manages to secede. Now imagine that a few years after it seceded it joined the Russian version of NATO, a military alliance designed exclusively around containing the US. Further imagine that this alliance included nearly all of South and Central America. How would we feel? Well that’s probably a close comparison to how the Russians feel.

Instead of asking whether it would be a good idea to back off from guaranteeing Estonia’s independence with the threat of nuclear weapons, Clinton is instead of the opinion that NATO should continue to expand. Whether this expansion would include countries like the Ukraine and Georgia is unclear, but with her general bias towards expansion and her husband’s own expansion into Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. (All former Warsaw Pact countries.) It’s unlikely that the Russians would believe any assurances she made on the subject, and would rather expect the worst, were she to become President. And let us pause here for a moment to explain the Russian mindset. It’s not just a matter of feeling encircled, or being unable to deal with the loss of their empire. Whatever you believe about Russia and however you feel about Putin, the last example of war they experienced, World War II, was literally (if you look at deaths) 50 times worse for them than for us. When you consider something like the Siege of Leningrad it’s understandable if they’re a little paranoid.

Of course there are at least two arguments which are going to be raised at this point. One being that we are unlikely to use nukes if Russia just invaded the Estonia, or a similar NATO member. This is certainly true, but once you’re in a war escalation becomes natural (just look at World War I which also involved a large alliance.) Also given how few troops we have, using tactical nukes might seem like a natural option. In other words while we’re not likely to use nukes in a situation where Russia invaded Estonia, we’re certainly more likely to do it than if we had no treaty commitment to Estonia.

The second argument is that if Estonia (or a similar member) is not a NATO member than they are far more likely to get invaded by Russia. This is also certainly true, and yes, I know we have made war more likely, but it is not the kind of war we’re really worried about. It is not the Sack of Baghdad. And here we once again get into a discussion about the difference between volatility and fragility. By taking the vast majority of countries in Europe and putting them under the umbrella of NATO and the US nuclear deterrent we’ve made things a lot less volatile. Europe has enjoyed an unprecedented era of peace, but we have made things a lot more fragile. One of the points that Taleb makes is that when you have high volatility the graph moves a lot but not very far. When you have low volatility the graph is largely flat until suddenly you hit a cliff. In this case the cliff would be war between the US and Russia, and it might very well involve nukes.

I don’t think people have really absorbed how different nuclear weapons have made things. Previously it didn’t matter how desperate one of the belligerents became if the other side out fought them and out produced them there was nothing they could do. It didn’t matter how desperate Germany and Japan got, at some point they were going to lose and we were going to win. But imagine if they had had the same number of ICBMs that Russia currently possesses?

I am by no means suggesting that Russia is as desperate as Imperial Japan or Nazi Germany, but this does not mean that they might be feeling angry or backed into a corner. We’ve gone 70 years without another nuke being exploded in anger and after surviving the cold war I think we’re getting complacent and arrogant. These days people don’t take Russia seriously, and they should. Recall that during the Cold War we let the Soviet Union get away with a lot, they installed puppet governments across all of Eastern Europe and when the people of one of those countries, Hungary, had an uprising they crushed it. We let them invade Afghanistan (though this was something of an own goal, a mistake we ended up duplicating) and while we provided assistance to the rebels it wasn’t much, and it was only when they tried to put missiles in Cuba that we really pushed back, and that nearly resulted in catastrophe.

Having said all this you may be wondering what I’m actually advocating for, and you may even get the impression that the whole point of this episode is to declare my support for Trump. That’s actually not the case, and in fact while I was in the process of writing the initial blog post a story came out that Trump had repeatedly asked an advisor why he couldn’t use nukes. Which, if true, is scary. I haven’t had the time to really look into that, and as we saw above it is not unprecedented for people to latch onto things just because they make Trump look bad.

To go back to the very beginning of the post what I am mostly advocating is to take a historical view of elections rather than a political view. And honestly what that mostly means is getting away from the two major parties because that’s nothing but politics. I know it’s a little late in the game to be tossing in a discussion of third parties, but I have long been an advocate for greater third party participation in American politics. I think we need a whole marketplace of ideas with vigorous and informed discussion. In 1257 the citizens of Baghdad didn’t need to hear a discussion of tax rates, or the latest fashion or whether the laws were too harsh or too lax, they needed to hear from the lone general who advocated everything possible to placate the Mongols. Six months before the sack I’m sure there were all sorts of things which seemed very important which didn’t matter in the slightest six months and one day later.

Steering a nation is complicated, and I’m not saying I know who would do the better job, and even if I did the results are well beyond my ability to influence, but when you’re thinking about these things, spare at least some thought for preventing big negative black swans. Spare a thought for what you can do to prevent the Sack of Baghdad.