Will Republican lemmings jump off cliff with Ted Cruz & vote to shut down government rather than fund Planned Parenthood?

Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz is once again at the forefront of a movement to shut down the federal government by not passing a spending bill as a means to inflict his harsh social vision on the country. And once again the threatened action will not achieve its results.

Two years ago, Senator Cruz convinced his Republican brethren in the House to stonewall passing a budget unless the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was defunded. For about 16 days, the federal government curtailed routine operations and went into emergency mode. Approximately 800,000 federal employees were laid off and another 1.3 million were ordered to work with no pay—at least until an appropriations authorization bill passed. Hundreds of thousands of private sector workers for government contractors were laid off on a temporary basis.

And it was all for naught, since the federal government finances are structured in such a way that even during the shutdown, most of Obamacare money could still be spent.

When Ronald Reagan, patron saint of the hard right once said “There you go again” in a debate with Jimmy Carter during the 1980 election campaign, it was his way of sloughing off Carter’s accurate description of Reagan’s objections to Medicare.

“There you go again” thus takes a completely different meaning when uttered to Cruz and his crazies, who are threatening to block an appropriations measure and thereby shut the government this fall, unless Congress defunds Planned Parenthood.  And as it turns out, the government shutdown once again won’t have the impact its supporters want, since much of Planned Parenthood’s funding from the federal government will not be affected by a shutdown. Not only that, the shutdown will certainly lead to increased support of the organization by private donors. Neither women nor most men like it when you start messing with their birth control!

So once again, just like in 2013, the shutdown would be symbolic only, and once again the symbolism would come at a great cost to the economy and the many Americans who depend on the efficient operation of the federal government. Once again, it would make the United States a laughing stock in the eyes of the world.

When I first read about the possibility of yet another government shutdown over an issue of people’s healthcare, I thought it was an idle threat or a trial balloon. But the past few days have been filled with news media speculation about the threatened shutdown. Most of the pundits commenting on both sides of the aisle seem to agree that voters will not like the shutdown and will blame the Republicans.  Of course, a year after 2013, all was forgotten and forgiven and Republicans swept the off-year Congressional election, albeit with the help of a fawning news media, new voter suppression laws and gerrymandered districts.

What are these guys thinking? Let’s forget about the immature petulance of trying to punish an honorable and popular organization that does so much to bring low-cost medical services to women—and men—just because 3% of its budget is dedicated to performing a legal procedure that these self-proclaimed moralists don’t like.  Think instead about the absurdity of forcing a $3.5 trillion operation to grind to a halt because you don’t like an organization that receives less than two hundredths of one percent of the budget (approximately .0156%), especially given that the organization gets absolutely no money from the government to perform the services that its opponents dislike.

Regardless of one’s place on the political spectrum, anyone who does the numbers must realize that the campaign to shut the government down rather than fund Planned Parenthood is a fool’s mission.

I wonder if Cruz is thinking that if he leads a shutdown attempt it will help him gain in the polls. After all, he is currently the leading candidate in Iowa among Republicans who have ever been elected to any office. Of course his standing among elected Republicans puts him in fourth place, with a mere 9% of likely Republican voters supporting him in Iowa, behind amateurs Donald Trump and Ben Carson, tied with 23% each, and Carly Fiorina, with 10%. Perhaps advanced secret surveys suggest that Iowans like it when the federal government shuts down. Except, of course, those who get social security checks, have to use the informational or research services of the government, know someone with a case in immigration court, are expecting refunds from the Internal Revenue Service, are victims of domestic abuse, have a child in Head Start, visit national parks, or have or work for businesses that serve the government or depends on imports.

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Is the key to Trump’s success that his speaking style resembles standup comedy?

Most candidates use the same speaking style, starting with the organization of their speeches into distinct sections in which they talk about one or a few related issues. Each section will handle the issues using similar rhetorical and syntactical devices: employing more words than are necessary; using anecdotes instead of statistics; hedging bets with such weaselly phrases as “anticipate” “start to address” and “return to American traditions”; reducing issues into slogans and one-liners; using repetition to drive home points (almost always in imitation of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” style); taking a humble approach except in the constant use of the royal “we.” To all current Republicans and a goodly share of Democrats, we can add using misinformation and disproven assumptions to the mix.

Except for the arguing by anecdote and the use of misinformation, Donald Trump’s speaking style is none of that, which may be why he continues to build a lead in Republican polls.

First and most importantly, there is no formal structure to the Trump stump speech. He seems to meander from one subject to another, and he is never comprehensive the way Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush is. He talks only about the hot button issues that have seemed to enliven his supporters: immigration, getting tough with the rest of the world and his personal feuds with various news media personalities. He will occasionally add an extremist version of standard Republican cant, such as the condemnation of Planned Parenthood. Far from humble, he goes out of his way to remind the audience that he’s right, even when he’s wrong. He rarely completes a thought before a new topic pops into his head or he skips back to something he mentioned earlier. Many candidates such as both Bush presidents have cultivated changing the grammatical subject of a sentence in mid-sentence, but Trump takes this dislocated style a step further, changing not only the grammatical subject, but the topic of the entire sentence as well.

But if his style seems alien to political arenas, it is familiar and perhaps soothing to the majority of Americans who watch a lot of TV, for his characteristic performance resembles that of a contemporary (post-Dangerfield) comedian.

The contemporary comic for the most part doesn’t tell jokes, but rambles from topic to topic, free form, occasionally saying something funny or zinging a sacred cow or well-known human foible. You never have the feeling that the contemporary comic is scripted, but rather speaking a spontaneous stream of conscious rap. Doesn’t that sound like Trump?

The contemporary comic, be it Sarah Silverman, Chris Rock or Ron White, often trades in stereotypes, and assumes that we do, too. Doesn’t that sound like Trump?

The contemporary comic is self-referential, ether drawing from her or his own life or interrupting a thought process to refer to her or himself—how the performance is going, the personal effect of the story on the comic or something else just as extraneous. Doesn’t that sound like Trump?

The contemporary comic relies on slang as opposed to speaking in a formal language. Doesn’t that sound like Trump?

The contemporary comic will take a complex social issue, reduce it to one or two points which will be inflammatory but not necessarily salient and then melts away our anxiety about the complex issue with simplistic, often aggressive and senseless exhortations. Doesn’t that sound like Trump?

And while there are some comics who specialize in insults, virtually all comics will insult someone. Now we know that sounds just like Trump.

In short, Trump’s speaking style and its easy distillation into outrageous one-liners for the news media are something that many voters are more used to than the more organized, if equally duplicitous, style of other Republican candidates.

Another similarity between Trump and a standup is that Trump’s public character is a laughable cliché. Some comics pretend to be hicks, some pretend to be promiscuous, some affect a rage at the world, some are “mama’s boys.” In Trump’s case, he’s a puffed-up and vain buffoon—a wealthy fool, someone with a lot of money but no taste. The properties he built were garish. His private life exemplified what used to be called the “nouveau riche,” those who have money but spend it tastelessly and foolishly. His “Apprentice” TV show was a parody version of the business world, his gruff and insulting style a parody of a type of executive who is not all that prevalent nowadays.  I thought he embarrassed himself with his intimations that Barack Obama was not an American citizen. His “birther” pronouncements also added racism to Trump’s reputation, already sullied by frequent misogynistic comments.

At least Reagan played heroes and good guys, or a genial executive for General Electric. And at least, when Al Franken went into politics, he shed his comic persona (which in some ways parodied the parody that is Trump) and became a policy expert.

I’m certain that some people don’t realize that Trump started as a buffoon, or are enamored of the gaudy, materialistic, self-aggrandizing life that was and is his public persona. While many people share my disdain for celebrity culture, I’m sure at least 7% of American voters buy into it—and that’s what Trump’s Republican supporters add up to right now: 28% of a party with which 25% of all voters affiliate, or 7% of all voters.  Of course, that’s still a heck of a lot more than Jeb Bush, John Kasich or Marco Rubio.

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Mainstream media goes to repudiated conservative expert for analysis of China’s problems

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine,” is what Humphrey Bogart’s character says when his long-lost love, played by Ingrid Bergman, walks into a bar in “Casablanca.”

I have a variation for Andrew Ross Sorkin, who writes the “Dealbook” column for the New York Times. “Of all the economists in all the universities in the world with all the theories predicting China’s decline, Sorkin writes a full-length feature article on one whose theory has been discounted because he and his associates couldn’t count.”

I’m referring to Sorkin giving Professor Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard a platform for applying his repudiated theory of debt to China’s current problems in a Times article titled “A Warning on China Seems Prescient.”

It turns out that Rogoff has predicted that China’s economic difficulties would affect the world economy for a number of years now. His reason—too much debt.

Sorkin spends a lot of time building up Rogoff’s credentials, mentioning that he is a chess grandmaster and calling This Time It’s Different, the 2008 tome of economic history he wrote with Carmen Reinhart, a “seminal book.” A few years back, when government debt trumped all other macroeconomic concerns in the news media, This Time Is Different caught the attention of the news media because it concluded that countries with public debt greater than 90 percent of gross domestic product suffered measurably slower economic growth. Politicians and journalists throughout the world used this “new discovery” to bolster assertions that governments everywhere had to reduce debt instead of pumping money into the economy to create jobs. The problem was that Reinhart and Rogoff miscalculated in a number of places and even made counting errors. With their bad math corrected, no real correlation was found between levels of debt and economic growth.

In other words, within a few years of publishing their study, Rogoff and Reinhart’s theory was disproven.

Sorkin, who is supposed to be a specialist in these matters and therefore familiar with the literature, explicates Rogoff and Reinhart’s theory but makes no mention of its repudiation. I can’t imagine the learned and honored Sorkin not having read that their bad math led to a false conclusion.

We can only assume that Sorkin wanted to use Rogoff as his expert because he wanted to float the theory that too much debt is causing China’s economic problem.

Apart from the fact that use of a bad expert calls into questions Sorkin’s credibility, the idea that debt is to blame for the Chinese stock market crash and economic slowdown is absolutely ridiculous, for reasons of fact and common sense.

First the fact: because of the lack of transparency in the Chinese economy, no one really knows how much debt the Chinese government and its citizens really hold as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP). You can’t say “too much” if you don’t know “how much.”

Now the common sense: For years, China’s economy has grown at an enormous rate that was bound to eventually falter. Its lowest annual growth rate since 1989 has been 3.4%, its highest 14.2%, with most years more than 7%. That’s a phenomenal growth rate. For example, since 1800, the growth rate in Great Britain has averaged less than two percent. As measured by GDP, the U.S. averaged growth of 3.24% between 1947 and 2015. Before about 1800, the average economic growth rate throughout the world was less than 1%. For a country to essentially sustain a 7% growth rate for more than 25 years is exceedingly rare.

China may or may not have too much debt. The Chinese leaders may or may not be mismanaging the short-term crisis, as some have said. There may or may not be a real estate bubble in China. Maybe all or some of these factors exacerbate what’s happening in China now. But one thing is certain: China could not sustain its rapid growth forever and whenever that growth slowed down, it was going to be a bumpy ride for China and any country that does business with it (meaning every country!).

With Rogoff’s help, Sorkin looks past the obvious and blames too much debt—the excuse that conservatives always like to give for economic problems. For those new to the “three-card monte” that the ruling elite and mainstream media constantly pull on the public, let me explain that “too much debt” always begins a conversation or thought process that ends with decisions not to pump government money into the economy, but instead to pay off debt without raising taxes; in other words, to starve the government.  If Sammy Kahn were an economist, instead of “Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage,” he would have written, “Too much debt and austerity go together like a golf ball and a tee.” Politicians tee up “too much debt” theories and hit the austerity ball hundreds of feet.

Unfortunately, the austerity ball always ends up in the sand trap. As we have seen everywhere in the world since the 2008 economic crisis, countries that follow austerity programs run into greater problems, and countries whose governments spread money around recover quickly with less permanent damage to their economies.

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Those in looking-glass world of investments think making financial advisors responsible to client harms public

There’s a scary series of ads on broadcast and cable television lately that warn us that the federal government is about to make it more expensive to get financial planning, make it impossible for people to use the trusted financial planner who has helped them reach their financial goals for years, and may even leave people with phone robots as their only source of investment advice.

The two ads I saw focus on two distinct demographic groups: One ad describes a conversation a couple have in the car ride home after dropping a child off at college. It seems as if the only thing threatening their financial future is a nebulous action the government is about to take. The other spot is a pained soliloquy of a minority small business owner—in the construction industry—who is worried what the impact of this unexplained government action will be on his ability to provide his employees with 401K plans. The call to action in each spot is to contact Congress and ask it to “fix this now.” Of course the ads never define what “this” is, instead focusing on what the speakers predict are the dire consequences of “this.”

The ads do a good job of raising anxiety and anger levels—anxiety about your financial future and anger at the government for making ominous if undescribed changes to the law.

Both spots drive viewers to Securefamily.org, which describes the “this”: “new retirement regulations from the Department of Labor.” Throughout the website, we learn about the consequences of the new retirement regulations, but we never learn what the regulations are or do.

That’s because, counter to what the Securefamily.org campaign may say, the new Labor Department retirement rules do not raise fees, mandate robo-advisors, nor of necessity make it harder to have a financial advisor or offer a retirement plan to employees.

What the new regulations, which have not yet been finalized, will do is make anyone providing financial advice for a retirement account to become a “fiduciary” of the client. Fiduciary is an odd- and corporate-sounding word about which thousands of books and article have been written. But the basic meaning of fiduciary is quite simple: A fiduciary must act in the best financial of the client.

That’s right. Under current law, registered financial advisors and others giving investment advice do not necessarily have to act in the best interest of their clients. They are free to recommend buying a stock to accommodate a larger client who wants to sell or to unload a large purchase their brokerage house just made. They are free to recommend mutual fund A over mutual fund B, if A gives the advisor a bigger commission and B is better for the client. They are free to sell fee-based accounts to clients who hardly trade and would save money if they switched to a commission-based account. As a fiduciary of the client, all these common actions would expose the investment advisor to a lawsuit.

The new rules would require advisors offering individualized recommendations to sign a contract detailing their fiduciary responsibilities. The advisor would also have to provide extensive information about fees and expenses and follow specific procedures to minimize conflicts of interest. Under the new regulations, individuals and businesses will have new rights to sue advisors for breach of fiduciary responsibility.

Who in the world could be opposed to making financial advisors fiduciaries, and therefore responsible for acting in the best interests of the client? How could acting in the clients’ best interests hurt the public?

The twisted, almost pathological reasoning of those opposed to the new regulations is that the cost of financial advice will rise, pricing many Americans out of the market for financial planners.

Let’s consider the ways in which the new regulations might lead to higher prices: Investment companies might get sued more often for not putting the client’s interest first, which would raise insurance costs. Or many advisors—the less competent ones to be sure—may get out of the business, unable to make a good living anymore because they won’t be able to steer their clients into more expensive options for the same basic investment; with fewer advisors out there, the cost of advice could go up. On the other hand, service will improve as advisors become both more competent and less conflicted, which should lead to fewer lawsuits and better returns in the long run. I’m thinking a good analogy is seatbelts: the industry said they would make the cost of new cars prohibitive, but they added very little cost while making automobiles much, much safer. No one was priced out of the market.

Some opponents also say that disclosure and record-keeping under the new regulations might be so extensive that it would make it too expensive to give advice to investors who aren’t wealthy. LOL! It will only take a few months for the industry to develop software that automates disclosure, just as it has automated financial planning for virtually everyone not a millionaire.  That’s the “robo-advisors” the ads warn you about, except the ads don’t tell you that many current financial advisors do nothing more than follow the recommendations of the software already. I don’t think the new regulations will dissuade the investment industry from continuing the “live robo” strategy of having human financial planners present the results of a software analysis.

I’m sure few readers are wondering who is financing this war against making investment advisors responsible for acting in their client’s best interest. We all know it’s the insurance and investment industry. The SecureFamily.org website, TV commercials and other campaign elements are financed by Americans to Protect Family Security, which describes itself as “a partnership of America’s financial advisors, life insurance agents, and life insurance companies that is dedicated to educating policymakers about the role our products play in the financial lives of 75 million American families.”

The financial industry has every right to fight regulations that will make it harder to make money, even if their position hurts the very clients they are supposed to serve. We see organizations advocating selfish positions all the time—automobile manufacturers arguing against higher fuel standards; coal companies and heavy manufacturers arguing against environmental regulations; Republican politicians arguing in favor of laws that restrict the right to vote.

What’s particularly horrifying is when the organizations lie or mislead. Talking about the hypothetical impact of a new regulation without telling us what the regulation does is as misleading as quoting weather personalities who don’t believe in global warming or creating nonexistent problems such as voter fraud. For the investment industry, this duplicitous approach is likely to backfire. The organization is acting deviously to oppose a new regulation that makes it harder for the industry it represents to act deviously. It seems as if all the Americans to Protect Family Security campaign is doing is showing just how necessary the regulations it opposes are.

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What do Netanyahu, Schumer, Menendez, other Iran deal critics want? War, a stronger Saudi Arabia, contracts for cronies?

When Senator Robert Menendez says that the Obama Administration should have held out for a better deal with Iran, he forgets that every day of negotiation without a deal was one more day that Iran could work on gaining a nuclear weapons capability. He also forgets that the Iranians and Americans weren’t the only ones at the table. If the United States rejects the agreement, the other five nations could still go through with it, pretty much breaking the economic embargo and isolating the United States.

Like Senator Charles Schumer, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other vocal critics, Senator Menendez never asks the question, What if there is no deal?

The status quo is as unstable as Beryllium 6, an unstable isotope with a half-life of less than a nanosecond: The economic isolation of Iran will continue and Iran will continue to build nuclear weapons. And how long will that scenario last? Only until one of three things happens: 1) Our allies in negotiation walk away from us and forge a deal with Iran that breaks the economic sanctions; 2) Iran has a fully functional bomb; or 3) Someone—the United States or Israel—bombs Iran and starts a yet another war in the Middle East.

How can any of these likely scenarios be better than a deal with inspections that postpones development of an Iranian nuclear capability for 15 years, during which time the West and Iran will have time to settle their differences, much as the United States and Viet Nam have done.

The common sense of the deal is so compelling that I find myself cynically asking what’s in it for the opponents, or better what’s in it for the network of rich donors and supporters of the various politicians who are voting or lobbying against the agreement.

Let’s first take care of the ridiculous Israel card. How could Israel’s interests (as opposed to the interests of Netanyahu’s supporters) possibly be served by passing on an agreement that keeps nuclear arms out of the hands of a government that at one time called for the eradication of the Jewish state? If we accept the premise that Iran will always be Israel’s mortal enemy—and it’s a premise that I believe is deeply flawed—how could you possibly want to not see constraints and inspections?  Why would you prefer an isolated, angry and nuked-up Iran to one without a nuclear capability that is slowly reintegrating itself into the broader world economy? Why would you rather project the world view of the ultra-right Ayatollahs than that of Iran’s many secularists?

Remember that while Iranian leaders have polluted the world’s media with numerous anti-Israel statements, Iran has never taken one overtly aggressive act against Israel. It has supplied arms to Palestinians, much as the United States supplies arms to governments and insurgents worldwide. Selling arms is, however, a far cry from an invasion, bombing or sending in of drones. I understand the emotional impact of having someone scream in your face for 30 years, but that shouldn’t prevent supporters of Israel from thinking clearly.

My conclusion: anyone who is against the Iran treaty because they fear it will weaken Israel is either an outright liar or an unwitting victim to the worst kind of emotional manipulation.  Let’s give the American Jewish organizations against the agreement the benefit of the doubt and say that they are all being misled. The irony, of course, is that surveys show that a majority of American Jews favor the deal, regardless of what claptrap spews from the brainwashed, co-opted or corrupted leaders of the various Jewish organizations that follow Netanyahu’s apocalyptic script in knee-jerk fashion.

That leaves only cynical reasons to oppose the deal:

  • Help Saudi Arabia, which benefits the most from no deal and loses the most from the deal, because reintegrating Iran into the world economic order hurts the Saudis.
  • Blindly implement a foreign policy strategy that depends exclusively on the use of force, the same neo-con strategy that has proven to be so disastrous in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • Gain more contracts for defense companies who contribute to your campaign.
  • Use the fear of Iran to gain power or remain in power, regardless of whether that harms your country.

I think for the Israeli and Republican Americans against the deal, all four reasons apply, whereas only the first three rationales apply to the benighted Senators Schumer and Menendez; they aren’t manipulating voters with bellicose rhetoric, only satisfying special interest groups.

But whatever the motivation, those who want to walk away from the nuclear arms deal with Iran certainly do not have the best interest of either the United States or Israel in mind and seem to prefer serving the tiny fragment of the population with large investments in defense contractors or strong ties to Saudi Arabia.

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To promote his book about thriving in the age of robots, professor gushes over how great automated weapons are

Reading “Robot Weapons: What’s the Harm?” by Jerry Kaplan, who supposedly is a university teacher of the ethics of artificial intelligence, made me wonder what the heck does the term “ethics of artificial intelligence” mean?

I would think that artificial intelligence—like any other technology—has no ethics, which is to say, the ethics of using artificial intelligence is as dependent on the goals of the user of the technology as are the ethics for using fire, bows and arrows, the wheel, the printing press, nylon, airplanes and nuclear energy. We bring our ethics to the use of technology. If we do something good with the technology, that’s ethical. If we do something that harms others, that’s not ethical. The fact that it’s artificial intelligence doesn’t change that ethical equation.

“Robot Weapons: What’s the Harm?” is by Jerry Kaplan of Stanford University, whose book, Humans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, hit the real and electronic book stands less than two weeks before the New York Times published the article, coincidence of coincidence.

Kaplan’s article is a Pollyanna view of automated weapons that seems quaintly old fashioned, as if it were more appropriately made maybe 20 years ago, before governments everywhere, but especially in the United States, started sinking billions of dollars into the development of automated weapons, which are weapons that make decisions to fire, bomb or crush without the intervention of humans. Much of Kaplan’s article takes a futuristic approach, as if automated weapons were only on the drawing board, and not already in production and being tested. He makes all the standard arguments of those who support developing robot weapon systems: automated weapons will protect civilians by enabling the army to target soldiers and make war safer for our soldiers because they will wage it at a long distance.

For someone who studies ethics, Kaplan certainly misses a lot in his discussion. He doesn’t consider whether having automated weapons will make it easier for governments to justify leading their countries into war. He doesn’t discuss how to assign blame when the weapons fail and kill civilians or even our own soldiers by mistake. Blame-placing is one of the central tasks of ethics, so I think someone who studies ethics would explore a situation in which the assignment of blame is an inherently murky matter.

Kaplan’s biggest failing in his encomium to robotic weapons systems is his neglect of the basic issue: is it ethical or moral to develop any technology into weaponry. His one comment is a quote from someone he identifies as a “philosopher.” No, it’s not Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius, Thomas Aquinas, Kant, Clausewitz, Trotsky, or Bertram Russell. These and other luminaries might have had an opinion on whether it is ever ethical to employ technology to kill people. But Kaplan’s philosopher is B. J. Strawser, who is an assistant professional of philosophy at the U.S. Naval Post Graduate School.  Kaplan claims Strawser says that leaders have an ethical duty to do whatever they can to protect their soldiers. This logical stretch to justify robot weaponry ignores the fact that Strawser recently shared authorship of a long paper that seems to conclude that development of automated weapons is immoral.  It’s a particularly odious example of attempting to prove an argument by selecting experts who agree with you, or in this case, one out-of-context statement by a minor expert who actually disagrees with you.

To understand how truly offensive Kaplan’s article justifying the development of automated weapons systems is you have to read the description of his new book on Amazon: “Driverless cars, robotic helpers, and intelligent agents that promote our interests have the potential to usher in a new age of affluence and leisure — but as Kaplan warns, the transition may be protracted and brutal unless we address the two great scourges of the modern developed world: volatile labor markets and income inequality. He proposes innovative, free-market adjustments to our economic system and social policies to avoid an extended period of social turmoil.”

It sounds as if Kaplan is both a believer in using artificial intelligence to continue automating the workplace and home and a humanistic, left-leaning capitalist of the Clinton-Obama-Biden school.

But doesn’t it make you wonder? Other than a book review in the Times, Wall Street Journal or New Yorker, few publication credits help the sales of a new book more than an article by the author on the Times opinion page. Kaplan could have written his short article on social policies that help society adjust to greater automation. He could have launched a discussion of the ethics of government support of the development of technologies that replace jobs.  He could have philosophized on the meaning of work in the new era. He could have painted a gee-whiz Jetson-like world of the future. He could have come out in favor of or against automating any number of industries, such as teaching, healthcare or entertainment.

He and his publicists rejected all these ideas and decided that the most attractive topic for selling books was to make the same tired and morally suspect arguments in favor of developing new ways to kill people more efficiently.

What’s the harm?, the headline asks. As if we don’t already know what harm comes from war: death, maimings, destruction, homelessness, economic ruin and wasted resources that could be dedicated to positive social ends.

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Sarah Palin endorses Trump: Reality TV celebrity buzz or political news?

It was hard not to come away from the first Republican debate with the disorientating feeling that you had just seen week one of “American Idol: Republican Presidential Edition.”

The similarities between the Republican pre-primary presidential campaign and a reality TV show start with the candidates. Like most performers on the reality shows that are entertainment contests, these Republicans are primarily seasoned professionals, but small-timers who most people have never heard of. Except of course, for one of reality TV’s most luminescent celebrities, Donald Trump.

Like the reality TV shows that follow the rude and often tasteless, if semi-scripted, behavior of untalented rich people who like to shop, the drama of the early Republican race has boiled down to the faux pas, insults and outrageous statements that the semi-scripted candidates make. Topping the long list of bitchy swiping at fellow candidates, Democrats and others is The Donald’s bloody simile. The vulgar allusion Trump made to Megyn Kelly menstruating and the very fact that he thought he could reduce the rationale for professional behavior to an old wives’ tale are the stuff of standard reality TV narrative, whether it’s Beverly Hills wives or Atlanta hairdressers.

Since the 1960 election of John Kennedy with fewer than 50% of the vote, the news media have gradually taken the focus of their election coverage away from issues and placed it on the same concerns that dominate celebrity news: Gotcha’s and mistakes. Personality clashes. What others think. Family life. Hobbies. Speaking style. Charisma. Skeletons in the closet. Long-time grievances and jealousies. Insulting other candidates. The latest popularity contest. In every election, ever more time and space is devoted to these “celebrity issues” and ever less time to economic, social, international and environmental issues. Moreover, since the turn of century, at the same time the media has been celebritizing our news, reality TV in all of its formats has grown to dominate broadcast and cable television.

Today’s announcement thus marks the final stage in the blurring of political news and celebrity entertainment. It is an announcement that resonates as loudly in the world of reality TV as it does in the world of politics:

Reality star Sarah Palin has endorsed reality star Donald Trump for the office of president of the United States.  In return, Trump will give Palin a cabinet-level position in his administration.

The news is pure hot air—the insubstantial stuff of which the celebrity news is. Everyone knows that there is no way Trump will get nominated by the Republicans, and if he runs as an independent, there is no way he will win the election. Palin has managed to become a has-been in three professions—politics, reality TV and news-casting. Palin disappeared from the political radar, I think, because her ignorant opinions and misstatements scare off all but the small base of rightwing Christian fundamentalists who were always her primary audience. If that base mattered demographically to Trump or any other candidate, it would have led to a larger audience for Mamma Grizzly’s reality show.

What we have then is someone who is living off a long-tarnished reputation endorsing someone known to the American people primarily as a business celebrity, neither of whom will have even an iota of political influence a year from now.

Soon enough, other Republicans will gather poll strength, whereas it is likely Trump’s support among Republican voters has peaked. Eventually he will be voted off the show, but not before buffoons like Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Ben Carson and Bobby Jindal get the boot—unless, that is, the Republicans take a page from avatar of reality TV, Chuck Barris, and announce the departure of candidates from the race with the striking of a large and irritating gong.

But even after the candidates are winnowed down to two or three, celebrity concerns are sure to dominate, as every one of these candidates advocates the same ideas, with some variation from Kasich when it comes to healthcare and gay marriage and from Bush and Rubio when it comes to certain narrow aspects of the immigration challenge. They all are against the deal in Iran and want to put troops in Iraq again. They all want to make it harder for women to get an abortion and birth control and for minorities to vote. They all want to stop President Obama’s global warming initiatives. They all want to weaken unions and cut taxes even more on the wealthy. None of them really cares a hoot about helping poor people.

Treating the nominating process as if it were a reality show distracts the American public from looking carefully look at what the candidates are saying. It keeps us from realizing how bad the Republican program is for anyone who isn’t rich and privileged, because we’re too busy analyzing the gotcha’s and trying to figure out if the non-Trumpeteers will coalesce behind Bush or Cruz. In the process, each candidate becomes redefined as a celebrity brand that we can describe in a few sentences, as opposed to the pages it would take to describe their positions on important issues.

In a similar way, the bloody exchange between Megyn Kelly and Mr. Comb-over transformed Kelly from a pulchritudinous piece of Fox News window dressing, known primarily for her comments in praise of white people such as Santa Claus, into a legitimate journalist who verbally wrestled with a major political figure and held her own. Peter Zenger versus William Colby. David Frost versus Richard Nixon. Dan Rather versus George Bush. And now, Megyn Kelly versus Donald Trump.

At least that’s the hype in the previews.

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How deep is racism in criminal justice system? In Tampa, police target black bicycle riders for tickets & harassment

Unequal treatment of African-Americans by Tampa police has not received much national publicity, probably because, unlike Ferguson, Cleveland, New York, Waller County and Arlington, Texas, Cincinnati, Charlotte and elsewhere, there have been no reported killings in Tampa. But the situation in Tampa symbolizes how deeply racism has infected the criminal justice system across the United States.

Tampa police have issued more than 2,500 tickets to bicycle riders over the past three years, more tickets for bicycle infractions than were written in Miami, Jacksonville, Orlando and St. Petersburg combined.

And who are all these hell-on-two-wheel menaces to the road who seem to congregate on Tampa streets?

Funny (no not funny, sad and absurd!)—80% of the bicycle scofflaws in Tampa are African-American, despite the fact that blacks only represent 25% of the city’s population. A recent National Public Radio report on the Tampa police says that some residents complain of being stopped on the bicycles multiple times a day.

Evidently in Tampa, BWB (bicycling while black) has joined DWB (driving while black) as a crime.

Unless you subscribe to the racist theories of Charles Murray, these facts produce, as the Latins used to say, “Res ipsa loquitor,” a thing that proves itself.  The obvious conclusion in this case is that the Tampa police are going out of their way to give tickets to African-American bicyclists. Tampa police are engaged in an organized effort to discriminate against one group—to stop that group more often for trivial offenses and to write up those offenses more frequently.  Keep in mind that almost by definition, an infraction on a bicycle is minor, because there isn’t much damage bicyclists can do to anyone but themselves. Tampa thus joins Ferguson and hundreds of other municipalities across the country in implementing a program that kills two birds with one stone: raise revenues and harass minorities.

Some may say that in the context of police killings elsewhere, Tampa’s obvious discrimination against African-American bicyclists is trivial. But the very triviality of it is what I find so offensive, and so indicative of how deep and widespread the poisonous roots of racism have burrowed in this country.

Not only do we—meaning the criminal justice system—stop African-Americans disproportionately more often in crime prevention efforts, not only do more routine stops escalate into police violence against innocent African-Americans, not only are more African-Americans charged for the same or similar crimes than whites, not only do we assess larger bail amounts on African-Americans, not only do they receive harsher penalties when convicted, not only do more African-Americans get caught in criminal justice labyrinths that have them jailed for months and years because they can’t make bail—not only does our justice system treat African-Americans so poorly in so many ways, but we do it not only for serious crimes like murder and armed robbery, but for trivialities like not having a bicycle registration or forgetting to make a right-hand turn signal.

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The big loser in last night’s debate is anyone who believes in birth control

Watching the Republican debate last night made me feel like a westerner spending a lot of time with the Inuit Indians in the frozen Northwest and not understanding the difference between the various colors in the snow that they keep naming, all of which look like the same exact yellow to me.

I sure as heck couldn’t find much of a difference between any of the candidates, except in matters of style and in their relative abilities to speak plain English. For all their bantering and posturing, all of them said practically the same things, the verbal equivalent of all those colors in the snow—it all looks like the same yellow.

None of last night’s debaters like the Iran nuclear deal. None of them like Planned Parenthood and most of them oppose a woman’s right to control her own body. Most of them want to repeal Obamacare. None of them like government regulations or unions. All of them misrepresented the problems with the economy. All of them made at least one outrageous misrepresentation.

Rand Paul stood out as being opposed to warrantless government poking into the lives of American citizens, but he made his point in such an inarticulate and flustered way that I doubt few in the audience got it. Trump also stood out for the outrageous leaps of logic in his speech—which I see as more of a sign of a poor communicator than a bad thinker, although he is that, too. He also stood out for being the only candidate to refuse to support the Republican nominee, no matter who it might be, holding out the possibility that he would run as an independent if denied the Republican nomination.

With the differences between the Republican candidates little more than hair-splitting, we can only measure the winners and losers on matters of style. Here there was a great contrast: the angry Trump, the sarcastic Christie, the slightly rumpled and sober Kasich. The Nixonian-paranoid style of Scott Walker. The professorial detachment of Jeb Bush.

The real question is which of these styles will Americans find the most appealing, and history can help us venture a guess. Since the advent of television campaigning with the 1960 election, Americans have seemed to like handsome and smoothly articulate young men in their 40s or early 50s. John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama all qualify on this count, and Bush II represents the countrified version. Whenever someone has won the presidency with only slight experience, it has always been a handsome and charismatic young man.

For that reason, I’m predicting that Marco Rubio will get the biggest bounce in the wake of last night’s event.  He is not only the most boyishly handsome of the candidates, but also the best spoken, in terms of talking in simple terms, not skipping steps in constructing his argument, selecting the right word, speaking in complete sentences and avoiding the mistakes of logic that stem from a lack of knowledge of the English language. If there is any candidate who could overcome the enormous gap in accomplishments, experience and capabilities between these midgets and Hillary Clinton, it’s the one who noted that gap last night, Rubio.

But it doesn’t matter whether I’m right or wrong about Rubio getting the biggest bounce from last night’s debate. All these men hold almost identical positions.

American voters should keep that one thought in mind in evaluating all of these candidates: all 10 of the men on stage last night will act in precisely the same way as president.

Consider, for example, the Republican’s bête noire of the moment: Planned Parenthood. All of these candidates are in favor of defunding Planned Parenthood. Now they may say they’re doing it because they are against abortion or the use of fetal tissue to help cure diseases. But if we look beyond their words to what would occur if Planned Parenthood went out of business, it’s clear that they are really talking and acting against birth control. Anyone who believes that birth control should be legal and readily accessible to all should beware any of these Republican candidates.

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Wall Street Journal writer says “Thank God for Atom Bomb,” frees candidates to say anything without fear of embarrassment

Bret Stephens, a frequent opinion columnist for the Wall Street Journal has essentially freed politicians of both parties to say anything they like—no matter how outrageous, offensive or unfactual—knowing they will not have made the most embarrassing statement of the decade. That honor now goes to Bret, who isn’t really all that much of a maverick, for writing a piece in praise of the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 70 years ago, under orders of U.S. President Harry S. Truman.

Stephens ends the piece with the sentence that also forms its headline: “And thank God for the atom bomb.”

How offensive can you get? It’s absolutely incomprehensible that someone would want his or her deity to bless nuclear weapons. The implication is that the world is better off because a large and growing number of nations can destroy mass numbers of people in seconds, poisoning hundreds of thousands of others with radiation-based diseases that will continue the killing for decades to come.

The article starts from the point of view of a young American soldier—later a writer of cultural history—who remembers his relief to learn that he didn’t have to become part of a Japanese invasion force. Stephens uses this anecdote by Paul Fussell to suggest that the best justification for the atom bomb is that it saved the lives of American soldiers. But as he admits himself later in the article, no one really knows if dropping the bombs saved lives, of if so, how many. Stephens stacks his speculation with numbers and ideas that are supposed to make us conclude that Truman did the right thing, because he spared an estimated 7,000 American causalities a week.

But before Stephens makes his case, he first has to insult the hundreds of thousands of people who join in anti-nuclear rallies or comment on the horrors visited on the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His statement is so shameful that I wonder if he or any of the Journal editors read the paragraph: “In all the cant that will pour forth this week to mark the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the bombs—that the U.S. owes the victims of the bombings an apology; that nuclear weapons ought to be abolished; that Hiroshima is a monument to man’s inhumanity to man; that Japan could have been defeated in a slightly nicer way…” A desire to end war is cant. The realization that nuclear weapons are too horrific to use is cant. The idea that it was inhumane to incinerate 240,000 civilians by pushing two buttons a few days apart is cant. The factual record of Japan’s willingness to end the war before we dropped the first atom bomb is cant.

The only thing cant is Stephen’s reasoning—he can’t seem to understand that certain acts are so terrible that there can’t ever be a reason to justify committing them.

The basic premise behind Stephens’ argument is that in wartime, we can justify all actions, no matter how intrinsically inhumane they are. Stephens and the Journal’s editorial board did support the use of illegal torture by the Bush II Administration, but they also wanted to invade Iraq to prevent Saddam Hussein from unleashing what turned out to be imaginary “weapons of mass destruction” on the region. And the fact that Bashar Assad used chemical weapons on his own people sent Stephens and the Journal into a freaking frenzy.

The best I can determine is that Stephens believes that extreme acts of inhumane brutality should never be allowed unless they are committed by the United States.

Stephen ends the article by stating that it was the specific horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that compelled Japan to develop a less martial society and praises the United States for forgiving Japan its sins and helping the land of the rising sun to rebuild. Thus instead of wringing our hands for living in the land that committed the single two most ghastly and immoral acts in human history (the Holocaust, the death toll from British imperialism and the forced starvation of the Ukraine all consisting of a series of acts), we should instead pat ourselves on the back to celebrate Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  And instead of associating these gruesome acts with an “insipid pacifism salted with an implied anti-Americanism,” Stephens believes that we should learn the lessons of having a strong leader willing to do what it takes and not feel guilty about it.

Usually I spend some time on the anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki apologizing for my country. This year I will apologize not just because we dropped the bomb but also because apologists for nuclear destruction still exist and thrive in the United States.

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