The Damning of Snowden. This week President Obama held a press conferences in which he pledged greater transparency and more control over government surveillance. Yet simultaneously he denounced Edward Snowden. You would have to be blind and deaf not to grasp that all this attention to the NSA by Obama and Congress would never be happening if not for Snowdens revelations. Not only Obama, but The New York Times, too, responds to the message but wants to shoot the messenger.
Many of my friends say that they would have more respect for Snowden were he to have taken his punishment for breaking the law. I say: Whence comes this notion that one should pay the price for ones principled actions? The world runneth over with powerful people who pay no price at all. I think of Bill Clinton, who, in one of his last acts as president, pardoned Marc Rich, who helped Americas enemies and whose wife was a big Clinton donor. Did Clinton pay any price? Too many people seem obsessed with Snowdens putative style rather than his content. You dont have to be against defense and intelligence to appreciate that the current debate is useful.
Respect for the Fed. If you came from Mars and fell to Earth, you would be amazed to discover that one man in the world, Ben Bernanke, appointed and unelected, holds the fate of the US economy and markets in his hands. Economists of any persuasion seem to love the Fed, even if not Bernanke; the chair of the Fed, whoever he is, is their man in Havana. Every day now newspapers make odds on whether Obama will appoint Larry Summers to replace him. As Laurence Kotlikoff and Jeffrey Sachs recently wrote in the Huffington Post, what the Fed needs most now is someone to restore financial integrity to markets. Its fairly clear that Summers, while experienced in the ways of the financial world (and thats a good thing), is a pretty compromised candidate. Yet Friends Of Larry write op-ed after op-ed explaining that if only you knew him as they did, you would realize what a good fellow he really is. The outcome, of course, all depends on Obama, and there seems to be a pro-Larry campaign being organized.
Liberal Paternalism. One of the pro-Summers op-ed writers is Cass Sunstein, who together with Richard Thaler was one of the architects of Nudge, the fashionable methodology now increasingly embraced by liberal paternalists, especially privileged ones.(Are there any other kind?). Nudge aims to tilt the ground beneath your feet so that We will unwittingly choose to do what They have figured out is good for us. Thaler, according to the NY Times, was part of a consortium of behavioral scientists advising Obamas campaign, and Obama is reported to be setting up a Nudge Squad to help implement policies.
Nudgers attribute the tactic of adjusting incentives to the so-called science of behavioral economics, but its actually an old story. For decades stores have listed prices as $1.99 rather than $2.00, relying on the perception that a number starting in 1 rather 2 makes a difference. Movie theaters sell supersized barrels of popcorn for just a fraction more than a small cup. The US tax code offers a mortgage deduction that encourages you to borrow rather than save. You dont need a degree in advanced psychology to know how to tempt people.
There is something arrogant and ethically questionable about Nudge and its policy engineers, about their assumption that they know better than you what is good for you. As Mark White writes, The advocates of nudge seem more interested in steering people toward certain choices than in helping people learn to make better decisions. His essay describes too many of the drawbacks for me to list here.
I dislike Nudge more than I dislike Mayor Bloombergs well-meaning paternalistic but coercive attempt to outlaw 64oz sodas in New York. Bloomberg isnt nudging; he sets his cards on the table and you know your choices. Nudge is manipulation, and I hate being manipulated, even for my unconscious own good. Persuade me or teach me or force me.
Giant Powerful Corporations. I admit I understand where the Nudgers are coming from, because a good part of the bad choices being made by consumers are a consequence of the size, wealth, and influence of corporations who lobby and get you to do things that arent good for you. In some cases Nudge is an attempt to counteract corporate influence without alienating corporate money. We need a world where corporations cannot exert so much influence, but meanwhile, when they trespass, they (but no individual inside them) are merely fined.
The New Atheists. Im not religious, but I am anti-anti-religious. The deadly serious evangelistic atheists tend to be biologists and psychologists to whom matter looks naively simple and biology complicated. But most physicists know that the more you study the physics of elementary particles, the weirder it gets. It doesnt mean you have to believe in God, but recognize how little you understand about where the worlds apparent laws come from, and be a little more humble about other peoples beliefs.
Two-Party Politics. Benjamin Kunkel sums it up most concisely in his article Politico-psychopathology in N+1: If you wished to characterize the Democrats and the Republicans in terms of true exaggerations, you might say that the Republicans have become the Party of Psychosis while the Democrats have become the Party of Neurosis. The Republicans & have lost contact with reality, and orient their behavior & toward fantasies. The Democrats are neurotic because &their anxieties, hang-ups, and insecurities mean that they cant attain satisfaction, since in a basic way they wont even allow themselves to know what they want.
I still like America -- the romantic daredevilish anarchic genuinely capitalist version Serge Gainsbourg imagined it to be in his Sixties songs. And the America that Noel Coward sang about in 1949: „I don’t care for China, / Japan’s far too small, / I’ve rumbled the Rio Grande / . . . / But I like America / Its Society / Offers infinite variety . . .“
It continues so far despite rather than because of the manipulators in charge. Lets hope they dont manage to totally screw it up.