Friday, December 9, 2016

Marxist Fairy Tales from the Frankfurt School

American liberals and progressives used to consider themselves the voice of reason. Not any more. If eminent New Yorker music critic Alex Ross is any indication they have now descended into emotionally overwrought ranting.

With the election of Donald Trump to the American presidency, they have been running around like modern-day Paul Reveres. Their message:

The Nazis are coming! The Nazis are coming!

Their reasoning is so lame that one suspects that they are trying to undo the Enlightenment. Were they thinking clearly they would know that if they want to fight the good fight against sexist, homophobic anti-Semites, there is no shortage of Shariah-loving Muslim terrorists. But, that would require some courage. And, on the left, courage seems to be in short supply.

They prefer to fight the good fight against what they see as an incipient Nazi movement. I will offer one piece of advice. No one is going to think you are very bright or very serious or very courageous if you persist in fighting the last war. Or better, if you are fighting phantoms while the real enemy is advancing.

According to Alex Ross, the ascendance of the authoritarian proto-fascist Donald Trump was foretold by the great prophets of what is called the Frankfurt School. This School was comprised by Marxist German philosophers who emigrated to the United States during World War II, only to discover that an incipient Nazism was about to descend on the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Since they believed that Nazism was on the rise in America during the 1950s, their prophetic powers left a great deal to be desired. One also notes that they were spinning out Marxist fairy tales, and thus, that their judgment of political economy was lame and dangerous.

Pretending to be a deep thinker Ross has trotted out the Frankfurt School in order to rehabilitate their tattered reputation. Apparently, if your wide-eyed prophecies come true at some point in the future you are automatically a great thinker and a great theorist. The fact that these philosophers were so consistently wrong makes no difference.

Because… what the world needs now is more Marxism.

Allow Ross to describe his Frankfurt masters:

Mann was hardly the only Central European émigré who experienced uneasy feelings of déjà vu in the fearful years after the end of the Second World War. Members of the intellectual enclave known as the Frankfurt School—originally based at the Institute for Social Research, in Frankfurt—felt a similar alarm. In 1950, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno helped to assemble a volume titled “The Authoritarian Personality,” which constructed a psychological and sociological profile of the “potentially fascistic individual.” The work was based on interviews with American subjects, and the steady accumulation of racist, antidemocratic, paranoid, and irrational sentiments in the case studies gave the German-speakers pause. Likewise, Leo Lowenthal and Norbert Guterman’s 1949 book, “Prophets of Deceit,” studied the Father Coughlin type of rabble-rouser, contemplating the “possibility that a situation will arise in which large numbers of people would be susceptible to his psychological manipulation.”

One might argue that these German refugees, having lived through the rise of Nazism in their home country, wanted to warn their adopted nation of the dangers they saw. It would have been a nice way to return a favor.

And yet, people who have been traumatized tend to see dangers even where there are none. When you have been traumatized your mind goes into trauma-avoidance mode and you select out any signs you associate with the trauma, then to magnify their importance. They might not signal a clear and present danger, but what harm is there in taking precautions.

Or else you could say that they were suffering from cognitive dissonance. They must have been happy to see that the armies of the Anglosphere defeated Nazism, but they could not accept the influence of a culture that was alien to their own. British empiricism and American pragmatism cannot coexist with continental idealism.

Ross continues:

Adorno believed that the greatest danger to American democracy lay in the mass-culture apparatus of film, radio, and television. Indeed, in his view, this apparatus operates in dictatorial fashion even when no dictatorship is in place: it enforces conformity, quiets dissent, mutes thought. Nazi Germany was merely the most extreme case of a late-capitalist condition in which people surrender real intellectual freedom in favor of a sham paradise of personal liberation and comfort. Watching wartime newsreels, Adorno concluded that the “culture industry,” as he and Horkheimer called it, was replicating fascist methods of mass hypnosis.

Of course, this is absurd. I am not going to attribute it to Ross, since he is merely a carrier for Frankfurt School nonsense. What does it means to say that Nazi Germany was “the most extreme case of a late-capitalist condition.” You see, the Nazis were tricking you when they called their movement National Socialism. And they were even ore deceptive when they used its full title: National Socialist German Workers Party.

Does that sound like capitalism to you?

And, let’s not overlook the fact that German Nazis did not just hate the Jews. (One notes that Jewish bankers were instrumental in facilitating economic growth and development in Europe.) They hated Britain and America, as many continental Europeans do. Since Britain had invented free market capitalism, liberal democracy, human rights, the Common Law and so on, going to war, and being defeated by, nations that practiced true free enterprise does not make Nazi Germany the embodiment of late-capitalism.

One suspects that these Marxists were trying to recruit American graduate students to their cause, because no one is more gullible than an American graduate student who believes he is a serious thinker.

It takes minimum of thinking to see that Nazi Germany rejected both free markets and the free trade in ideas. It was obviously a cult to the will of a single individual, a Fuhrer. Rather than respect tradition, custom and convention and the rule of law, or the verdict of the marketplace, Nazis bowed down to the will of their Fuhrer.  They preferred instinct to reason and sought to return to pre-Enlightenment days.

The Frankfurt School thinkers sided with Marxism because they, like many other Europeans, refused to accept that their wondrous Middle European culture had been defeated by the dread Anglosphere. After all, Nazism and fascism and Communism had arisen out of European idealism. This philosophical tradition was not congenial with the more pragmatic and empirical British and Americans. Idealism did not inspire an American constitution that valued the balance of powers and that severely limited the power of the executive.

And yet, the Frankfurt School saw Marxism as the best way to be anti-Nazi and anti-fascist.  It did not understand that Marxism had given rise to cults to the personality of people like Lenin, Stalin and Mao Zedong. 

Being an idealist means never allowing your theories to suffer the verdict of reality. Ross notes astutely that the alarms raised by Frankfurt School thinkers in the 1950s amounted to so much noise. After a time, he says: “… the Frankfurt School was seen in many quarters as an artifact of intellectual kitsch.”

And yet, the School has been having something of a comeback on American campuses. Apparently professors who are trying to figure out how to deal with the crisis in international capitalism have exhumed the Frankfurt School. They should have let it rest in peace.

The irony is inescapable. After Marxism failed miserably to fulfill any of its promises, serious pseudo-intellectuals are tormenting themselves about the crisis in capitalism. Might they not think about how they could have gotten it all so wrong? Marxist governments produced nothing more than depression, desolation, famine and death. And these serious thinkers are worried about capitalism. They sound like a bunch of sore losers.

One suspects that the ability to blind oneself to reality is a sign of abiding faith in this pseudo-religion. These idealistic theories differ significantly from an Anglo-American culture based on empirical and pragmatic considerations. A culture that allows facts to decide the truth and that cares about whether a theory works in practice is not congenial to fascism. 

Of course, Marxists do not care about such banal considerations. They want to be considered to be above mundane considerations and to live among the philosopher kings.

Ross then excoriates the media for having given us Donald Trump. At the least, it shows that he has transcended banal facts. He does not give any weight to the fact that all of the mainstream media outlets, and nearly all newspapers detested Donald Trump. The New York Times considered the danger so great that it dispensed with the pretense of running objective journalism. Many other media outlets did exactly the same.

Ross is undeterred by realities. He wants to blame it all on… you guessed it: Mark Zuckerberg. Because the trending stories on your Facebook page swung the election toward Donald Trump. You know which ones, the ones that consistently lean left. And one might add that the powers that be in Silicon Valley were big  Clinton supporters. Google searches somehow tended to favor Hillary Clinton.

Ross deals with these facts in his own special way. He proclaims that the media was suffering from an unconscious desire to elect Trump. Yes, you heard that right:

Traditional media outlets exhibited the same value-free mentality, pumping out Trump stories and airing his rallies because they got hits and high ratings. At some point over the summer, it struck me that the greater part of the media wanted Trump to be elected, consciously or unconsciously. 

One hates to repeat oneself, but apparently one needs to do so. Authoritarian government is government by executive fiat, by executive edict or executive order. It is not a constitutional republic. Which president, we might ask ourselves, declared that he had to govern by executive order because Congress had failed to act? Where did he find that extra-constitutional principle?

And Ross, his mind having been seriously addled, declares that Trump will remove America from its role of world leader. Forget that fascist dictators always aspire to rule the world. Ross has another idea:

However the Trump Presidency turns out—whether it veers toward autocracy, devolves into kleptocracy, or takes some unheard-of new form—America has, for the time being, abdicated the role of the world’s moral leader, to the extent that it ever played that part convincingly. “Make America Great Again” is one of Trump’s many linguistic contortions: in fact, one of his core messages is that America should no longer bother with being great, that it should retreat from international commitments, that it should make itself small and mean.

You cannot help but laugh. Since Barack Obama has done everything in his power to diminish America’s role in the world, between walking away from Iraq, letting Syria burn, leading from behind in Libya and ceding authority to Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, it’s a bit rich to complain that Trump will abdicate the role of the world’s moral leader.

To Ross, moral leadership means allowing more and more refugees into your nation. He sees the beleaguered German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, as the last, best hope for democracy. No kidding:

Germany, on the other hand, increasingly appears to be the strongest remaining bastion of liberal democracy. 

As we know, liberal democracy was invented in that great bastion of capitalism: Great Britain. That nation just voted itself out of the European Union because British citizens were tired of taking their marching orders from unelected bureaucrats in Belgium and because they wanted to stop Merkel’s legions of Muslim refugees from arriving on their shores.

One thing that is clear: the refugees who are arriving by the hundreds of thousands in Merkel’s Germany are not coming for the liberal democracy. They have no interest in free markets or free speech. They want to impose their culture and their Shariah law on European infidels. In a growing number of cases the courts and the governments are more concerned with stifling what they have call hate speech than with stopping the refugee invasion.

If this is Ross’s version of the last best hope for liberal democracy, he really should stay away from Frankfurt School philosophy. It has seriously messed up his mind.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Quotation of the Day


If you don't read the newspaper, you're uninformed. If you do read it, you're misinformed.



Denzel Washington

(via Mark Twain)

We're Number 25!

It will not come as a surprise, but American children are still lagging the world in academic performance. When it comes to competing with their peers in foreign countries, they are not even close to the top. In most areas of academic achievement American children were average. In science we're number 25 in the world!

A recent test, called the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment was administered by Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Evidently, something is not quite right.

According to U. S. News and World Report, the results showed:

Across the globe, American students were outperformed by their counterparts in 36 countries in math; 18 countries in science and 14 countries in reading.

The tests were given to children in Massachusetts, North Carolina and Puerto Rico. The results varied from state to state to territory:

Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Puerto Rico participated as international benchmarking systems and received separate scores from the United States. Massachusetts's average scores were higher than the U.S. and the international average scores in science, math and reading. North Carolina's average scores were not statistically different from the U.S. average scores for all three subjects. And Puerto Rico's average scores were lower than both the average U.S. scores and the international average scores for all three subjects.

How do America’s best, from Massachusetts, compare to the best in the world. Singapore students’ science score led the world at: 556. Massachusetts students had 529, which would have tied them for sixth place. Singapore students math score was first at 540. Massachusetts students came in at 500.

Even America’s best, on a state level, do not do well in science and math. But, we really want to know what conclusions we should draw from this.

Naturally, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, believes that the problem can be solved by giving more money to teachers. One would like to know the difference between children who go to charter schools and children who attend schools where the teachers are unionized. One suspects that in many cases, in New York City at least, children in charter schools do better.

Strangely enough, none of those who have offered commentaries on the problem are suggesting that Common Core has helped things. As many have noted the Common Core curriculum, the brainchild of billionaires who have nothing better to do with their money, has not improved academic performance.

Common Core was concocted by so-called experts in the field of education. Evidently, the most recent election showed that a lot of Americans are seriously tired of having their lives run by so-called experts.

Here is one suggestion, from the OECD, via Newsmax:

"The fact that students in most East Asian countries consistently believe that achievement is mainly a product of hard work, rather than inherited intelligence, suggests that education and its social context can make a difference in instilling values that foster success in education," said Andreas Schleicher, the OECD's director of education.

Ah, yes. Values? Hard work, discipline, focus and concentration. Doesn’t it sound a bit like the regimen favored by the Tiger Mom, and wildly rejected by American parents, educators and developmental psychologists? Or else, we can call it the Protestant Work Ethic. Which is not quite the same thing as an ethic that values fun and play. Or an ethic that seeks to stimulate creativity. Or an ethic that gives everyone a trophy.

Evidently, the American fun ethic does not do as well as the old Protestant Work Ethic. And, dare we say, an ethic that values competition and that rewards success would be most likely to produce high student achievement.

As for social context, one is obliged to note that stable families and stable home lives must count for something. A child who lives in chaotic family conditions will suffer from the instability and will be more likely to underachieve.

We also note that inherited intelligence cannot lead to excellence without hard work. This is a version of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 rule. Many people have dismissed this rule, but if its purpose, as I see it, is to promote the value of hard work, focus, perseverance and concentration it is surely a step in the right direction.

Wendi Kopp, founder of Teach for America and president of Teach for All offers another suggestion. She is too polite to suggest that Common Core, education by experts, has failed to improve students’ competitiveness, but she does recommend that we should learn from what other nations are doing well. Rather than turn to experts we can look at the way children are being educated in Singapore and Estonia and Japan.

She explains:

Even though PISA shines a light on policies and practices driving high performance and meaningful progress, only sporadic, ad hoc and generally bilateral opportunities exist to carry knowledge of what’s proving successful in one country to other parts of the world. Most countries write off the opportunity to learn from the highest-performing countries, since they are far away and seem very different. 

And:

An urgent need exists for structured channels and funding for sharing knowledge and innovation across borders—in other words, for a dynamic network of global organizations that makes it easier for countries to learn from each other.

To be fair, these teaching methods are anything but state secrets. Everyone knows what everyone else is doing. Like a good bureaucrat, Kopp seems to believe that we just need more funding for a bigger bureaucracy. Then all will be well.

The reasons for American mediocrity lie elsewhere. We know what other countries are doing. We know what they are doing in Singapore and South Korea. But we do not want to adopt their methods. Our developmental psychologists and other assorted experts have told us not to do so. They have told us that these methods will turn children into neurotic automatons. We have dutifully listened.

We do not believe in competition. We do not believe in hard work. We do not teach perseverance. We want our children to be well-rounded. We want them to be popular. If they are teenagers we want them to have fulfilling sex lives and to be well informed about STDs and rape culture.

We do not believe in stable homes where people live in harmony. We believe in individual self-actualization where parents believe that their first priority is to themselves. In many cases they believe that this must take precedence over their duties and obligations to their children.

It’s the values, or absence of same. If we want to make America great we would do well to reconsider the way we are bringing up and educating our children. And we might start out by revising our value system, by rejecting the values that have been imparted by the therapy culture.

[Addendum: See also Alice Lloyd, on the PISA tests and Common  Core.]

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Thank You, All

My yearly pledge drive has ended and I want to thank all of you who donated to the blog. Your commitment is very much appreciated.

Of course, for those who have not yet contributed, the Donate button on the left side of this page remains hot.

Off With Her Hair!

My, oh my—American women are suffering a major mental health crisis. At least, a significant number of female Washingtonians are taking Hillary’s election loss badly. Very badly, indeed.

The great feminist heroine, the woman whose election would vindicate the political and ideological commitments of so many women, had been defeated by a misogynist boor. If they could not beat Donald Trump, what were they fighting for? They had gone all-in on Hillary, even though her successes, such as they were, derived more from her husband than from anything she had done.

Strangely, not one of the women who is flocking to the hair salon to make herself look less than her best has considered the possibility that Hillary lost the election by being less than a competent candidate and by being less than a successful public official.

We will not say anything about Hillary’s looks, or about her constantly changing hair styles, but she was not the most feminine woman around. For many women she stood as the woman who had overcome the feminine mystique. 

Was that the reason why so many women did not like Hillary? One would like to see an explanation for that.

Perhaps these women were living in a bubble where everyone has been cowed and bullied into believing one thing. They are convinced that they are right; they are persuaded that they are leading the world toward a brave new world; they know in their viscera that everyone in the country is on the same page.

And then they are like the leader whose troops have deserted him, and who finds himself out exposed, and on his own. It's not a good feeling.

Are they more horrified at what happened or more horrified at having so completely misread the mood of the American people?

One hates to sound sexist here, but for many women it’s all about their hair.

New York Magazine reports that hair salons in the D. C. area are seeing more and more women asking to have their hair cut off. These women are disowning their tresses, and lowering their pheromones because they have no other way to protest and to rebel against the horror that has just befallen them. (For the record, most of a woman’s sexual attraction hormones, her pheromones are in her hair. Take that as you wish.)

Allow me to mention the obvious point: women in Washington are more likely to be working for the government or for a not-for-profit. They are less likely to be working in commerce, industry or manufacturing. One might say that the Obama years were golden years for them. And that, sexism notwithstanding, the Trump years might see government workers lose respect and prestige.

The women who are cutting their hair off are doing it for Hillary. Already, we have reason to question their judgment. And they are doing it to strike back against Trump. Yet, I don’t quite understand why harming your appearance is a blow against the patriarchy,. Then again, I did not take any classes in Women’s Studies.

Heidi Mitchell has the story:

That sense of malaise is spreading across D.C. As women stare up at that glass ceiling still hanging over them and contend with a pussy-grabbing kleptocrat moving into the nearby White House, they are collectively — however subconsciously — making their own statements of rebellion by challenging traditional notions of beauty.

Is it all be about shedding the trappings of femininity? Because that will teach those misogynist pigs a lesson. Then again, it might tell them to avoid your company:

“When you see that much blonde hair on the floor, you know something is going on,” says Nicole Butler, creative director and master colorist at Daniel’s Salon in Dupont Circle. During the notoriously slow month of November, her salon received a startling number of bookings, with at least three women a day sitting in her chair and asking for a drastic change, like cutting off six inches, going black, or going platinum. 

Were these women declaring their independence? If so, independence from what: from curlers and blow dryers?

“Usually stuff like this is planned for weeks and put on the books after several consultations, but this was very spontaneous,” Butler says. “It was like a mass declaration of independence.”

Naturally, Mitchell has found an expert to explain it all. Marion Jacobs thinks it has something to do with control. In case you did not know, today’s therapists think that everything is a control issue. It’s their mental fetish du jour. I am sure you feel enlightened already.

Mitchell reports:

Marion Jacobs, a former professor of psychology at UCLA and the author of Take-Charge Living: How to Recast Your Role in Life … One Scene at a Time, believes the phenomenon is a way for women in D.C. to feel powerful in a moment where a stranger has seized the steering wheel. “When people experience a change that is so opposite from their value system, that’s very unnerving,” says Dr. Jacobs, who has a private practice in Laguna Beach, California. “People will use all kinds of coping mechanisms, and cutting their hair and changing their look is one way to show or feel that they are doing something over which they have control.”

Surely, these women are sympathizing with Hillary Clinton, the candidate whose slogan was: Stronger Together. Was it all a bluff? Did certain segments of the American populace, including no small number of women, call the feminist bluff? Then again, are these newly shorn women trying to tell us that being strong does not coincide with being feminine?

But, wasn’t that the most obvious point about the Hillary candidacy?

In Mitchell’s words:

“One of my clients said, ‘Think of Melania Trump and go in the opposite direction,’” she says. “She said, ‘I don’t want to be that person people see as sexual, I want to be seen as strong.’” Another professional woman cut her hair into a flattop. One client got rid of the blonde highlights she maintained forever, “because she said she never wants to be seen as cheap. I don’t know where that idea came from, but maybe that’s what she’s hearing.” 

Some women thought that by cutting off their hair they were showing that they no longer wanted to fit in to society. As mentioned above, biology has it that long hair contains more pheromones, so it’s not all about conforming to societal norms:

George Washington University teaching instructor Dr. Kristian Henderson had been battling with her hair for years, but after the election, she finally took off her weave and cut it all off. “The election results felt like an attack on minorities, women, and marginalized people in general. Having long hair was my attempt to fit into society, so after the election, I felt a need to exert my ‘uniqueness’ and not tie my femininity to the length of my hair,” she says.

To keep it fair and balanced, Mitchell notes that some women are keeping the look they had before the election. For Julianna Evans it was Goth. By her analysis, losing the election provoked the feeling a woman gets when her boyfriend dumps her and then moves in next door.

So, these women felt rejected, as though by a boyfriend. And they wanted to punish these men by clipping off their own tresses? Huh?

Evans is continuing to fight the good fight to defeat misogyny. Besides, she loves her narrative and even if the world rejects it, she refuses to give it up. In it she’s a commanding general… so it doesn’t matter that she has no troops behind her:

Julianna Evans likes the narrative she’s commanding, and says she’s keeping her goth look, though her stylist has added some more natural lowlights. “You have to live here to understand that we are immersed in politics every day,” the mother of two explains. “For many of us, with this election, it’s like your boyfriend dumped you in a really shocking way with no explanation and then moved in next door.” She is resigned to fighting against what she sees as a mandate for sexism through her own style choices. “Now, I feel like my hair says you can’t bring me down. This misogyny will not persevere. The bumper sticker for me is, ‘I am woman, hear me roar.’”

This is more than passing strange. It becomes even stranger when you try to put it all into something of a historical context. We know that some nuns do have their hair cut short. Presumably, their vocation and their membership in the sisterhood are not consonant with seeking to attract male erotic attention.

And then there is this. In France during and after the Nazi occupation women who were accused of collaborating with Nazis, of having sex with their captors, were humiliated by having their hair cut off, that is, by having their heads shaved.

The information comes from a site called Real Historical Photos:

French women who befriended the Nazis, through coerced, forced, or voluntary relationships, were singled out for shameful retribution following the liberation of France. The woman photographed here, believed to have been a prostitute who serviced German occupiers, is having her head shaved by French civilians to publicly mark her. This picture was taken in Montelimar, France, August 29, 1944.

At the end of World War II, many French people accused of collaboration with Germany endured a particularly humiliating act of revenge: their heads were shaved in public. Nearly all those punished were women. Most historians have stressed the sexual anxiety created by the Nazi Occupation and how women’s sexual activity was judged as part of a public “cleansing” after liberation. Similar to the vigilante gangs that punished men who collaborated with the occupiers, groups would band together to judge women by parading them in the public square. This episode in French history continues to provoke shame and unease and as a result has never been subject of a thorough examination.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Did the System Work?

What went wrong? As Western nations are rejecting what seem to be liberal democratic institutions in favor of populism, more than a few people are asking what went wrong?

Of course, the analysis assumes that the peasants with pitchforks are rebelling against democracies. It might well be, as Bret Stephens suggests this morning, that they are rebelling against the elites who have been running the international banking systems. That is, against those who supposedly saved us from disaster after 2008.

According to Stephens, the system did not work.  In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis institutions of “economic global governance” took over from the markets. They narcotized the problem… disguising, but not solving it. It’s like maxing out your credit card and then taking out a few more credit cards to pay off the first one. Ad infinitum.

Would the market have done better? We do not know. Many serious thinkers—James Grant comes to mind—suggested that we would have done better to let the market deal with the problem. It would have produced some considerable short term pain, but it would have set the world banking system on firmer ground.

Populism, by Stephens’ reading, is a reaction to rule by certain elites, by a guardian class that believes it knows better than the markets. The economic recovery engineered by the guardians looks good on paper but does not feel so good for those who have been left behind. One understands that the profligate Obama administration could not have borrowed all the money it did if the Federal Reserve and other banking institutions did not conspire to keep interest rates artificially low.

In Stephens’ words:

What happened? In 2014, Daniel Drezner, a professor at Tufts, published a book extolling the International Monetary Fund and other institutions of “economic global governance” for putting out the fires of the 2008 financial crisis. The global economy had been teetering on the brink of another Great Depression, but it didn’t fall in. Ergo, success.

The book was called “The System Worked.” Except it didn’t.  The system did more to mask problems than it did to solve them.

Government statistics can show a drop in the unemployment rate, but they give scant indication of whether the jobs available now have the status or pay of the jobs available previously. Giving unlimited credit to a panicked patient will always have a narcotic effect; it can also have an addictive one. Near-zero (or sub-zero) interest rates will goose stock markets to the delight of sophisticated investors—and the dismay of savers. Bank bailouts may make “systemic” sense. But they divorce behavior from consequence. Pushing economic management from elected officials into the hands of unelected central bankers and regulators flatters the vanity of the intelligentsia while offending the normal person’s sense that his vote should count toward his own livelihood.

What does Stephens mean when he suggests that the bankers helped divorce behavior from consequence? I understand him to be saying that when you borrow too much you ought to suffer the consequences. Profligacy should not be rewarded. Yet, the guardian class printed so much money that people got the sense that they could spend what they wanted and that the day of reckoning could be put off forever. In their hearts they know that something was wrong. But they do not know what and do not know how to fix it.

The Case for the Electoral College

You would expect that a Harvard Law School professor would be the voice of reason and sanity. But, we live in difficult times, and, in a recent Washington Post op-ed Prof. Lawrence Lessig showed himself to be so totally overwrought about the election outcome that he recommended that electors defy their oath in the electoral college and vote how they pleased.

He counts among those who want to change the rules after the game is over. It’s a genuinely bad idea.

In brief, Lessig suggested that designated electors vote their conscience and not their commitments. By his idealized version of democracy—and it is not just his—the will of the majority of the people should prevail over the American constitution.

He is not alone in offering this viewpoint. And yet, if he takes it as seriously as he says, then he should be demanding that we scrap that other decidedly undemocratic institution: the United States Senate.

In any event, Lessig has just been schooled by The Economist, in its Democracy in America column. It is rare that a magazine takes on and brings down a Harvard professor, but the magazine did just that. As happens with most articles in that magazine, it is not signed.

The magazine accuses Lessig of “motivated reasoning.” By that theory people are often inclined to select out data that confirms their beliefs, ignoring facts that would tend to disprove them. Amusingly, for me at least, the notion of motivated reason, coupled with confirmation bias gives the lie to Freud’s claims that his patients provided material that proved the correctness of his interpretations. Suffering from motivated reason his patients were, in fact, conjuring up material that would prove him to be right. At times, of course, they did not believe it themselves.

Anyway, the Economist summarizes Lessig’s argument.

Point one:

First, he says, there is no rule in the constitution compelling electors to vote for the candidate who received the most votes in their respective states. In fact, nothing in the document suggests “that electors’ freedom should be constrained in any way”. True enough.

Point two:

Mr Lessig summons Alexander Hamilton’s argument in Federalist #68 that electors should vote based on “a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice”. Electors are, to Mr Lessig’s mind, a “safety valve” in case Americans screw things up a bit too royally: “Like a judge reviewing a jury verdict where the people voted, the electoral college was intended to confirm—or not—the people’s choice”. 

The Economist says that Lessig has indulged a bit of sophistry, via a specious analogy:

Judges do not appear out of nowhere to put the brakes on jurors’ democratic sentiment: they are carefully chosen, or they are supposed to be, for their intellect, expertise and fair-mindedness. Electors are tapped on the basis of their loyalty to a political party—not because they are wiser or more reflective than anybody else. 

Lessig has misunderstood the electoral college. It is not a deliberative body populated by solons. It is populated by “faceless hacks.”

The Economist continues:

The electoral college isn’t a deliberative body at all: there is no discussion, just a secret-ballot vote. And each state’s electors vote in separate locations, never seeing each other or exchanging a word before doing their one-off constitutional duty.

Even if the 538 electors were somehow men and women of profound virtue and valour, blessed with a deep understanding of what America needs in a president, it would still be antithetical to democratic principles to untether their vote from the results of the actual vote on election day. But at least that looks like an enlightened aristocracy. How much more dangerous would it be to entrust the choice of the person to run the country to a few handfuls of ordinary people who have no particular clue?

Lessig believes that electors know better than the voters of their states. The Economist calls him out on yet another piece of sophistry:

Under what theory would a smattering of several hundred unvetted party loyalists have a better radar for brainwashed or criminal candidates than upwards of a hundred million voters? 

And also:

If anything, entrusting the choice of the president to a group that’s 0.0005% the size of the voting population would make it more likely, not less, that a nightmare candidate would win the keys to the White House. Mr Lessig would like the electoral college to be “reflective” and “conservative”, and assert itself only for “a very good reason”, but it's hard to square this charming image of an obedient collection of right-thinking adults with Mr Lessig's point that no constitutional constraint binds them. Without an overlord telling them when to rebel and when to go with the flow—or, perhaps, an Ivy League professor whispering in their ears—the electors seem singularly incapable of saving the nation from a loon, a fascist or an inveterate Twitter abuser.

Of course, Lessig trots out the argument that electors should vote for Hillary Clinton because she won the most popular votes. And yet, electors are not bound by the national vote tally. They are obliged only to vote for the candidate who won the majority of votes in their respective states.

Then, Lessig adds the patent absurdity that Hillary was “the most qualified candidate for president in more than a generation.” In fact, she lost the election because the American public saw her to be an incompetent fraud.

Besides, the Economist continues, the democracy cannot function unless people play by the rules. The system, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once opined, is about playing by the rules, not necessarily obtaining justice.

Those who refuse to accept the outcomes are acting like pre-schoolers. The Economist explains:

Playing by the rules should result in the spoils that rule-following doles out to all involved parties. To tweak an admonition often directed to pre-schoolers, you get what you get, and whether or not you get what you want, you don’t get to upset the structure under which everyone was operating in the first place.

Hail Mary attempts to thwart a Trump presidency—whether it’s throwing good money after bad in expensive recounts that have no real chance of changing the outcome or reimagining the nature of an old and weird institution with roots in the protection of slave states—are understandable. But they are desperate, and the latter is dangerous. Electors are better off doing what they were haphazardly appointed to do under America’s unique and all-too-flawed electoral set-up: represent the vote totals of their home states.

Desperate people say desperate things. When serious law professors let themselves be carried away on a wave of emotion, what hope is there for the rest of us?