I was on Stossel's State of the Union special last night, so I watched the speech in the company of David Boaz, Matt Welch, and Governor Gary Johnson. I had a lot to say about it on television, which you can watch here.
I thought the speech was better-written and better-delivered than many of the critics I read this morning; it had a lot of good applause lines (along with, yes, the groaner about spilled milk), and the president is stylistically a very good speaker.
But I also thought that, three years in, I'd like to see a little more from his speeches than base-pleasing applause lines and pleasing delivery. The content of the speech was sorely disappointing.
The harsh way to put it is that the speech was an extended whine about how all the rich bankers and George Bush have screwed everything up. That was fine campaign rhetoric when he was a Senator. But it's pretty weak when he's been in charge for most of a full term--two years of that with a majority in congress.
Of course, one can argue--correctly--that Obama actually doesn't have the power to fix the economy; the recession was deeper than he thought it would be. I'm entirely sympathetic to this argument except for one thing, which is that Barack Obama got himself elected by claiming that "the Republicans have driven the economy into a ditch" and he could drive it out again. It doesn't seem unfair to judge him on his failure to actually deliver what he promised:
Lauer: "At some point will you say, `Wait a minute. We've spent this amount of money, we're not seeing the results. We've got to change course dramatically.' "
Obama: "Yeah, look, I'm at the start of my administration. One nice thing about the situation I find myself in is that I will be held accountable. You know, I've got four years and...
Lauer: "You're going to know quickly how people feel about what's happened."
Obama: "That's exactly right. And you know, a year from now I think people are going to see that we're starting to make some progress. But there's still going to be some pain out there. If I don't have this done in three years, then there's going to be a one-term proposition."
If Obama didn't want to be judged on the basis of the economy's performance, he shouldn't have let his mouth write checks that he couldn't cash. If it turned out to maybe be a little harder to steer the economy where you want it than he thought it was, then maybe he should lay off claiming that the Republicans drove the thing into a ditch.
But he hasn't. Instead he's complaining that the GOP won't let him steer--pretty rich considering that he started out with a 60-seat majority in Congress, and chose to ignore the economy in favor of passing a health care bill that has gotten even less popular since we passed it to find out what was in it.
That's the harsh version. The slightly kinder version is that Obama, stymied by an economy that's still pretty weak, and an opposition that has no more interest in cooperating with him than Republicans did with Hoover, has turned to a laundry list of weak proposals that sound pleasing to interest groups, but wouldn't achieve much. Of those, the best was allowing students who study here to stay here; the stupidest was probably adding yet another investigation of bank fraud (what have you been doing for the last three years, Mr. President?) And the worst was the bizarre proposal for states to force students to stay in school until graduation or the age of 18. Beyond the obvious enforcement questions, by the time people drop out of high school, they're normally already badly lagging their classmates, with low grades and test scores, and high rates of truancy. Commanding them to physically stay in the building for another two years is not going to fix those problems; presumably, it's a sop to any teachers he pissed off by proposing that we might fire those whose students aren't learning.
There's no real common thread holding all of these proposals together except what you might call "nostalgianomics".
Think about the America within our reach: a country that leads the world in educating its people; an America that attracts a new generation of high-tech manufacturing and high-paying jobs; a future where we're in control of our own energy; and our security and prosperity aren't so tied to unstable parts of the world. An economy built to last, where hard work pays off and responsibility is rewarded.
We can do this. I know we can, because we've done it before. At the end of World War II, when another generation of heroes returned home from combat, they built the strongest economy and middle class the world has ever known.
What a strange thing to say. "We know how to do this?" Do what? Have World War III?
Surely Obama's economic advisors have not told him that they know how to replicate the growth of the 1950s--and if they did, surely the last three years have given the lie to this belief.
I think the speech made it even clearer that other speeches have that the president's vision of the world is a lightly updated 1950s technocracy without the social conservatism, and with solar panels instead of rocket ships. Government and labor and business working in tightly controlled concert, with nice people like Obama at the reins--all the inventions coming out of massive government or corporate labs, and all the resulting products built by a heavily unionized workforce that knows no worry about the future.
There are obviously a lot of problems with this vision. The first is that this is not what the fifties and sixties were actually like--the government and corporate labs sat on a lot of inventions until upstart companies developed them, and the union goodies that we now think of as typical were actually won pretty late in the game (the contracts that eventually killed GM were written in the early 1970s).
And to the extent that the fifties and sixties were actually like this, we should remember, as Max Boot points out, that this was not actually the day of the little guy. Big institutions actually had a great deal more power than they do now; it was just distributed somewhat differently--you had to worry less about big developers slapping a high-rise next to your single-family neighborhood, and a whole lot more about Robert Moses deciding he wanted to run a freeway through the spot where your house happened to be.
The military model of society--employed by both Obama, and a whole lot of 1950s good government types--was actually a kind of creepy way to live. As Boot says, "America today is far more individualistic and far more meritocratic with far less tolerance for rank prejudice and far less willingness to blindly follow the orders of rigid bureaucracies." If you want the 1950s except without the rigid conformity and the McCarthyism, then you fundamentally misunderstand what made the 1950s tick.
Finally, there's the fact that the 1950s ended in the 1970s. In the 1950s, American products were envied all over the world; by 1980, they were a joke. This is not some radical disconnect; it is the beginning and end of the same process. The technocratic American institutions became sclerotic agents of inertia. Bosses whose pay was capped poured their energy into building personal empires instead of personal fortunes. Unions like the UAW began making demands on their companies so heavy that even the UAW president who had negotiated these amazing pay increases began to fear that his members had lost their minds.
As David Boaz said last night, Obama's talk of blueprints was telling. A blueprint is a simple plan that an architect imposes on an inanimate object. Obama really does seem to think that he can manage the economy in the same way. No, I don't think that he is a socialist. Rather, I think that he really believes there are technocratic levers that can make the income distribution flatter, the rate of innovation faster, and the banking system safer, without undesireable side effects.
The problem with all nostalgia isn't even that it's necessarily wrong--by many standards, the 1950s was a great time to live. Rather, the problem is that it almost always wants to turn a transient moment into a steady state--or worse, only "the good parts" of those transient moments.
I had hoped that the last three years had taught Obama the limits of this sort of thinking. But if they have, he certainly hasn't chosen to share that hard-won knowledge with the rest of us.
Some researchers believe that the microbiome may play a role in regulating how people think and feel.
By now, the idea that gut bacteria affects a person’s health is not revolutionary. Many people know that these microbes influence digestion, allergies, and metabolism. The trend has become almost commonplace: New books appear regularly detailing precisely which diet will lead to optimum bacterial health.
But these microbes’ reach may extend much further, into the human brains. A growing group of researchers around the world are investigating how the microbiome, as this bacterial ecosystem is known, regulates how people think and feel. Scientists have found evidence that this assemblage—about a thousand different species of bacteria, trillions of cells that together weigh between one and three pounds—could play a crucial role in autism, anxiety, depression, and other disorders.
Trump’s greatest gift to the GOP may be the distraction he’s provided from other party meltdowns.
Even though 2016 appears to be the year of painful, public disqualification from higher office, you may be forgiven for not noticing the extraordinary implosion of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. After all, the Trump surrogate and White House Transition chair has benefitted from his early endorsement of the Republican presidential nominee in unusual fashion: Christie’s power in the Grand Ole Party has decreased, rather than increased. The likelihood of a plum position in the Trump administration—Attorney General, perhaps, since Christie was spurned as the Republican running mate—is decidedly dim, what with the presently apocalyptic predictions about November 8th.
Instead, Trump’s gift to Christie has been shadow: the top Republican’s national meltdown has obscured that of the one-time rising Republican star and sitting New Jersey governor. But make no mistake—Christie’s is a fall of epic proportions, precipitated by an unfathomably petty revenge plot. The contrast of the two, the top-heavy-ness of the fallout compared to the insignificance of the initial transgression, would be comic, were it not so tragic. Remember that in November of 2012, Governor Christie had a 72 percent approval rating. Today, it stands at 21 percent.
In the 1970s, a new wave of post-Watergate liberals stopped fighting monopoly power. The result is an increasingly dangerous political system.
It was January 1975, and the Watergate Babies had arrived in Washington looking for blood. The Watergate Babies—as the recently elected Democratic congressmen were known—were young, idealistic liberals who had been swept into office on a promise to clean up government, end the war in Vietnam, and rid the nation’s capital of the kind of corruption and dirty politics the Nixon White House had wrought. Richard Nixon himself had resigned just a few months earlier in August. But the Watergate Babies didn’t just campaign against Nixon; they took on the Democratic establishment, too. Newly elected Representative George Miller of California, then just 29 years old, announced, “We came here to take the Bastille.”
Tom Hanks’s Doug has a lot in common with “Black Jeopardy” contestants—except, of course, for politics.
SNL’s ongoing “Black Jeopardy” series has been, in part, about divisions. In each edition, black American contestants answer Kenan Thompson’s clues with in-jokes, slang, and their shared opinions while an outsider—say, Elizabeth Banks as the living incarnation of Becky, Louis C.K. as a BYU African American Studies professor, or Drake as a black Canadian—just show their cluelessness.
When Tom Hanks showed up in a “Make America Great Again” hat and bald-eagle shirt to play the contestant “Doug” this weekend, it seemed like the set-up for the ugliest culture clash yet. The 2016 election has been a reminder of the country’s profound racial fault lines, and SNL hasn’t exactly been forgiving toward the Republican nominee on that front: Its version of Trump hasn’t been able to tell black people apart, and it aired a mock ad painting his supporters as white supremacists—which, inarguably, some of them really are.
Just why was Tom Hanks dancing in a black-and-orange suit on Saturday Night Live so funny?
This weekend’s episode of Saturday Night Live offered a mini masterpiece: a gloriously silly Halloween-themed piece revolving around a “Haunted Elevator” ride and its unusual star attraction. Beck Bennett and Kate McKinnon played a couple looking for spooky thrills who instead found something far more bewildering: a pumpkin-suited man who would randomly appear alongside two cheerful skeletons and perform a dance routine. “Who are you?” asked a frustrated Bennett after the man (played by Tom Hanks) appeared for the second time. “I’m David Pumpkins!” came the reply.
McKinnon followed up: “Yeah, and David Pumpkins is … ?”
Tristan Harris believes Silicon Valley is addicting us to our phones. He’s determined to make it stop.
On a recent evening in San Francisco, Tristan Harris, a former product philosopher at Google, took a name tag from a man in pajamas called “Honey Bear” and wrote down his pseudonym for the night: “Presence.”
Harris had just arrived at Unplug SF, a “digital detox experiment” held in honor of the National Day of Unplugging, and the organizers had banned real names. Also outlawed: clocks, “w-talk” (work talk), and “WMDs” (the planners’ loaded shorthand for wireless mobile devices). Harris, a slight 32-year-old with copper hair and a tidy beard, surrendered his iPhone, a device he considers so addictive that he’s called it “a slot machine in my pocket.” He keeps the background set to an image of Scrabble tiles spelling out the words face down, a reminder of the device’s optimal position.
Biology textbooks tell us that lichens are alliances between two organisms—a fungus and an alga. They are wrong.
In 1995, if you had told Toby Spribille that he’d eventually overthrow a scientific idea that’s been the stuff of textbooks for 150 years, he would have laughed at you. Back then, his life seemed constrained to a very different path. He was raised in a Montana trailer park, and home-schooled by what he now describes as a “fundamentalist cult.” At a young age, he fell in love with science, but had no way of feeding that love. He longed to break away from his roots and get a proper education.
At 19, he got a job at a local forestry service. Within a few years, he had earned enough to leave home. His meager savings and non-existent grades meant that no American university would take him, so Spribille looked to Europe.
Why cultures that value interdependence, like Japan, win at being deep
Think of the last piece of big news you got. How did you feel about it? Happy? Sad? Angry? Worried? Excited? Grateful? A little bit of all of the above? Experiencing multiple emotions at once may make it seem like you don’t actually know just how you feel about something—that you’re ambivalent, or indecisive, or wishy-washy. Psychologists would say it just means you’re emotionally complex. And according to a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, emotional complexity varies a lot between countries.
There are two definitions of emotional complexity that researchers tend to use. One is called “emotional dialecticism,” which just means feeling positive and negative emotions at the same time. The other is “emotional differentiation,” which is when someone is able to separate out and describe the discrete emotions they’re feeling.
Trump supporters are convinced Democrats are using “oversampling” to stuff the polls in Hillary Clinton’s favor. But they’re just wrong about statistics.
Late last night, pro-Trump Twitter lit up with excited chatter. Donald Trump is falling fast in the polls, sliding through a month-long decline most statisticians would say is a result of him being, you know, unpopular. (And maybe this. Or this. Or this.) But one blogger had another theory: Polling organizations are deliberately interviewing more Democrats to skew the surveys toward Hillary Clinton.
This afternoon, Trump threw his support behind the idea. “When the polls are even, when they leave them alone and do them properly, I’m leading,” he said at a rally in Florida. “But you see these polls where they’re polling Democrats. How’s Trump doing? Oh, he’s down. They’re polling Democrats. The system is corrupt and it’s rigged and it’s broken.”
Washington's zeal for humanitarian action ebbs and flows. And many are dying as a result.
To revisit the U.N.’s anointing of Aleppo as a World Heritage Site is a haunting exercise. The U.N. celebrated the city’s “13th-century citadel, 12th-century Great Mosque and various 17th-century madrasas, palaces, caravanserais and hammams,” all of which constituted “the city’s cohesive, unique urban fabric.” This Aleppo, after five years of brutal war, is a place now dead and buried.
The war has turned ordinary Syrians into flotsam and jetsam, lost amid national forces beyond their control, including the brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad, extremist groups such as the Islamic State, and regional actors like Iran, Hezbollah, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Russia. But if the civilians were hoping for Western action to stop the bleeding, they have fallen prey to another set of dynamics they can’t govern or even necessarily understand. Historically, Washington’s zeal for intervention in humanitarian crises follows a cycle. And the Syrians, unfortunately, are dying during the wrong phase.