Thursday, February 29, 2024

Blowing Smoke

     "History is a bath of blood. . . . Where then would be the steeps of life? If war had ever stopped, we should have to re-invent it, on this view, to redeem life from flat degeneration."
        William James, The Moral Equivalent of War, as published in Popular Science, 1910

I don't know the motivations of the guy who "rolled coal," putting out black clouds of pollution. 

I wrote about it yesterday. I guessed that he felt alienated and nihilistic. But maybe he felt like a conquerer. Look what I can do!

Then, seconds later, this is what I could see.

His bursts of black diesel exhaust were intentional and had no purpose other than display. He was showing contempt for the people and place around him. Yesterday I put it into the context of the message of Trump advisor Steve Bannon's "Burn it down." 

There may have been joy in it. It was a primitive instinct, bourn out of the DNA of generations of survivors, as William James wrote. Humans fight wars. If they won, they sacked the city. They killed the males and took the women and land. The Old Testament said it was God's will. It was the story of the armies of the Greeks and Trojans, of Alexander, of Rome, and of the Vikings. It was Hitler's plan for Eastern Europe. The strong dominate the weak. It is the way of the world.

William James' essay presumed that the thrill of victory was an essential part of the human spirit. Winning and taking is what made life worth living. "Without risks or prizes for the darer, history would be insipid indeed." The driver of that truck could easily have been caught and fined -- but he got away this time. Maybe.  

William James wrote that countries needed national purpose to give them cohesion and manly toughness. If not war, then some moral equivalent of it.

Trump taps into that martial spirit. He rallies crowds with talk of victory. It is every country for itself.  Universal values are for wimps and losers. He projects that onto Democrats. He presumes that laws that have been in place for decades are being enforced against him as a partisan attack. Trump does not seek empire in Europe. He says to let Europe fight its own wars. Let Putin do as strong countries have always done. Trump's empire would be to the south, to people he considers weak, criminal, and dangerous. If Trump is Hitler, then Mexico is Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine. 

Biden has a task. He needs to articulate a strong national purpose. I don't hear it yet from him. This election cannot be a won as a contest between a strong but crazy Trump versus constitutional order. It isn't enough. Americans don't value constitutionak order per se; they value it for the success it brings to America, if it brings success. 

Articulating a narrative of national purpose is not Biden's strength, but I think he could do it. He can show it comes out of the wisdom of decades of experience. He is old enough to be selfless now, solely looking to the future -- a way to reposition age. Trump, too, is old enough, but he is the opposite of selfless. That is a point of distinction. Biden gets the better half of that divide, if he articulates it clearly.

There is a war to fight. Bring back American jobs. Build back heartland cities. Make America far more self-reliant in its critical supply chains and in energy. It is nationalistic rather than global. It is a moral equivalent of war. 

Of course, Biden is already doing this, but it is not yet framed as a matter of wartime urgency or a response to fear. Fear that we are vulnerable. Fear that we need to catch up because we have fallen behind. John F. Kennedy campaigned on the fear of a "missile gap" with Russia. It didn't exist. That didn't matter. He is remembered for creating a mood that was strong and forward-looking in the face of danger. He said we are a nation that would do hard things because they were hard, like put a man on the moon in that decade. 

I realize that Biden is an improbable JFK, but it is his job at this moment in history.

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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Polluting on purpose. Rolling coal.

"We don't need no education
We don't need no thought control . . .
All in all, it's just another brick in the wall
All in all, you're just another brick in the wall." 
        Pink Floyd, in 1979 rock opera, "The Wall."

I am trying to understand the nihilism of the driver of this truck. 

I don't see the value in his big "F--- You!!" to the world.

Someone spent a thousand dollars or more to modify a pickup truck so the driver can switch on big cloud of black smoke. At 4:58 p.m. yesterday on the Crater Lake Highway just outside of Medford I was behind this truck.

I had noticed an enormous cloud of smoke being emitted intermittently from the truck. I was behind him at the next stoplight. Then this:

And this:

And this. I was blind for about three seconds at 40 miles per hour.  

The driver, a young man, turned on "the coal" three or four times over the three miles leading into town. It happened to be an area that included the county sheriff's headquarters, but the pollution bursts weren't focused there. It was at the world at large.

He was "rolling coal." 

The serious venues of social commentary are full of articles about "the problem of young men." They have fallen behind women in education; they are playing video games instead of working; they are involved with drugs; they aren't settling down and starting families; and they are dying early in "deaths of despair." Political pundits observe that most of them are voting for Trump because he appears to be the one who will "burn it all down." 

Objectively, measured by the unemployment rate (3.5%), and the wage people need to pay to have a person regularly show up at work ($20+ at minimum; $25 for agricultural work) conditions are not bad. A young American man need not fear being drafted into a war. The working and non-working poor have Medicaid health benefits under the ACA/Obamacare. Statistics don't seem to matter. The mood defies the data. They have tuned in to the zeitgeist and dropped out into angry nihilism.

The mood goes beyond young men. It includes older, fully established and connected men and women who have voted Republican for decades. These are people with careers, homes, and 401(k) accounts. They are people who go to church and have kids in scouting and soccer. They teach their children to be good sports and accept winning and losing. They tell their children it is wrong to cheat on tests. They, too, have picked up some of the "burn it down" attitude, at least in their politics. They know Trump is a con man, a tax cheat, a man who stiffs and bankrupts vendors. They know he stole classified government documents and lied about it, then complained when the government caught him in the lie and recovered them. They know he did something wrong to E. Jean Carroll. Most of them know by now that there was no factual basis for his claiming he won the 2020 election. Both Fox and Newsmax insert "No, he didn't. He lost" when they show video of Trump asserting that he won the election. 

But even about 80 percent of those "good" Republicans go along, supporting for election a man whose job is to "faithfully execute the laws" even though he openly, flagrantly, and proudly flouts laws and the institutions of justice that enforce them, at least when they are enforced against him. They know he is a scofflaw, and they are OK with it. It is a feature, not a bug.

I took photos of the truck because I was frustrated and angry at the young man. But I also feel sorry for him. How miserable it must be to feel so angry and disaffected that he will trash his own place with such a pointless gesture of defiance.

I am more frustrated and angry at Republican officeholders and community leaders who know better. They have every advantage of privilege and power, but still support a leader who is so flagrant in his own nihilism.  He is saying "F--- You!" He is trashing the place.

Tomorrow: A look at William James's essay, "The Moral Equivalent of War," 1910. It isn't a look back. It is a way forward. America needs a new burst of national purpose.

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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Section 230 makes social media possible

Here is the law:

  "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." 

The person who uploads content -- not the social media platform -- is responsible for that content.

That section of the law makes possible sites like Facebook, YouTube, X, Instagram, TikTok, Next Door, Reddit, Threads, Truth Social, and all the others.

Fortune Magazine, 1996. Senators Ron Wyden and Christopher Cox at a press conference explaining why they wrote the Section 230 provision.

We think of Facebook and the many other platforms as spaces for anyone to share information on politics, how to prune peach trees, and a grandchild's birthday party. Section 230 allows free speech, but "free speech" is complicated. Citizens have free speech most clearly in public places, for example parks, public plazas, and sidewalks. 

Private businesses are a gray area. Some businesses are considered "common carriers," i.e. natural monopoly utilities where all customers must be treated equally. A telephone company or garbage service cannot refuse to serve Democrats, even if its owner is a Republican. The gray gets darker in the arena of privately-owned shopping malls and parking lots in front of grocery stores. They are quasi-public squares. Property owners have more control over what and how political activity is conducted.

The world is feeling its way as regards social media platforms. 

Both Florida and Texas passed laws prohibiting social media companies that do business in their state from censoring political content. They asserted that conservative voices are discriminated against by social media companies. This grievance comes out of the decision by Facebook and Twitter (in its pre-Musk ownership days) to ban Trump after the January 6 insurrection. The companies found he was inciting violence. Then, during the height of the Covid pandemic, the sites banned posts of what they considered dangerous misinformation on vaccinations. These bans fit a GOP/Fox narrative of victimhood and outrage: The liberal media is ganging up with the liberal social media.

A case wound its way through the courts and was argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday.


Social media companies are not unmanaged free-for-alls of content. They block posts they consider dangerous or offensive. They also shape the content any one viewer sees. Their advertising models are so powerful because they personalize ads. If you idly search for a local carpet-cleaning service, for the next days or weeks you get ads from carpet cleaning services, oriental rug re-sellers, and realtors inquiring if you wish to list your home. (Realtors apparently learned that homeowners decide to clean their carpets professionally before putting their homes up for sale. The social media company realizes you are going to sell your home before you do.) 

Social media companies are arguably public gathering spaces with monopoly power, and should be treated like a common carrier. Since they are absolved of liability for what is uploaded, they should take all comers. That is the Texas and Florida argument.

Questions from Supreme Court justices in the four hours of oral argument suggest that the justices are skeptical of that argument. The justices' questions made the distinction between private and public and they seemed to validate social media companies' desire to curate their own spaces. 

I am happy to read that.

I curate the comment section of my blog. Were I to leave it unmoderated it would fill with spam links to malware and obscene troll posts. Social media platforms found that there is a form of "Gresham's Law" at work. Bad content drives out good content. Left alone, social media sites are prey to Russia malware and propaganda, conspiracy theories, and offensive content. Who decides what is offensive? The people who own the site. They are the ones creating an overall experience that will draw people to their businesses.

There is a free-enterprise remedy for people who think themselves unfairly censored. Trump tried it. He started his own site, Truth Social, where he is free TO WRITE MANIC THINGS AND THREATEN VIOLENCE using capital letters. Another remedy is the one taken by Elon Musk. He bought Twitter and changed its policies and renamed it X. Trump is back in, and now liberal tweets are sometimes blocked. X is now more snarky, hostile, and toxic than ever, but there is an audience for that.

Sites that allow the public to upload material need to be able to protect themselves. There are a lot of crazy, dangerous, and malicious people out there.

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Monday, February 26, 2024

Things fall apart

". . . the center cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world."
      Y. B. Yeats, "The Second Coming"

These words and this poem are favorites among writers who think we face doom.

Much of left-oriented punditry fears something horrible on the near horizon. In a movie it would be sound-scripted with ominous music. It might be shot dark so something could suddenly spring from deep shadows. In the typical movie trope, the protagonists are blithely unaware. 

That is the movie we are in right now. 

Most left-oriented commentators consider Biden the inevitable choice. They are a mixture of resigned and nervously optimistic. He's our man, and that's OK. The economy is strong. The stock market is up. Unemployment is down. Trump is indicted and acting wilder and more manic. Ten and possibly 20 percent of Republican voters won't vote for him. That means Biden will win. 

Amidst the peril, maybe the movie has a good ending.

Meanwhile, there is another version of Democratic hope. This is the Dues ex machina one. Or the "Beam me up, Scotty" one. Or the sudden appearance of the cavalry. Fiction is full of devices like these.

Ezra Klein's op-ed in The New York Times is the most recent iteration. He says that an event of some kind will cause Biden to abandon his re-election plan.  LBJ did so in March of 1968, so there is still time. Maybe Jill Biden will say something. Maybe Biden will have a health event. In Klein's imagined movie, Democrats will have a convention, and instead of a coronation it will be old-school sausage-making. Out of it will come a new face, someone broadly acceptable to Democrats and to the nation. No one could possibly be as flawed a candidate as Trump. The person will have been chosen by political professionals and activists, and there are eight or 10 senators, governors, and members of Congress who have been vetted by their state's electorates

But wait. 

Leftist pundit Matthew Yglesias writes that Democrats have the same problem as do Republicans, the ones who are insisting that Trump won in 2020 and that human life must be protected, beginning at fertilization. The activists and professionals in the two parties don't represent the broad middle of American voters. They represent the near-extremes. The proof of that pudding is that the three leading Democratic U.S. Senate candidates from California oppose the Biden-supported bipartisan border deal. To get a convention nomination a candidate must remain acceptable to its leading-edge flanks. A Democrat who supported a 21-week abortion period would run afoul of reproductive rights advocates who insist that it is the woman's choice, not subject to politically chosen end-dates. Democrats who compete with Democrats cannot choose a broadly popular position on immigration regulation, nor on natural gas as a transition fuel, nor on energy drilling, nor on siting offshore wind, nor on transgender rights on bathroom use, athletic competition, and gender-affirming care for minors.  

Biden, with all his flaws, did something important for Democrats when he won in South Carolina four years ago. He was the one person who could lead Democrats from a party centered around the politics of approximately Elizabeth Warren, to the politics of the center-left. Many Democrats regret that because engaged Democrats have moved left. The country has not. 

Democratic Convention, Chicago, 1968

The problem with a brokered convention is that Democrats would not nominate someone whose politics reflect the American center. Those activists and professionals would see a weak Trump and decide this is not time to compromise. They would likely "go big." 

Biden carried battleground states -- but barely. Trump is not as unacceptable to voters as most Democrats think he should be. Democrats who are well-tethered to voters are brought back to reality on what is popular. South Carolina did that for Democrats in 2020. A brokered convention allows them to vote their aspirations

Democratic aspirations are not yet broadly popular enough to win in the states needed to carry the Electoral College.

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Sunday, February 25, 2024

Easy Sunday. Fox fact-checks Trump


Yes, it can happen.  I don't credit ethics. I credit plaintiffs. 

Fox doesn't want to be sued again.

The clip is just over one minute. You will probably need to click the speaker-shaped sound icon at the bottom of the video screen.

Dominion, the voting tabulating machine company, settled a lawsuit with Fox for nearly $800 million. Smartmatic has a pending lawsuit seeking $2.7 billion. Like Dominion, they claim Fox left unchallenged defamatory statements about them that Fox knew were untrue. Fox hosts don't want to disturb their audiences with information that contradicts Trump. But the threat of lawsuits is a powerful incentive to do so anyway. It isn't journalistic ethics at work. Those failed Fox. Fox doesn't want another expensive judgment in favor of a plaintiff.

A preview of coming posts:

A lawsuit by an injured party — or fear of one — shapes behavior. I saw it first-hand in my career in the investment industry. I saw another example of it earlier this month, this time involving a controversial Medford law firm, the RISE Law Group. The law firm primarily does "family law," i.e. divorces. 

Watching a contentious trial was a "bucket list" activity for me. It lasted eight days. The trial raised issues of fiduciary duty, reasonable fees, billing practices, collection practices against a client's unpaid bill, motions to require the recusal of judges, and reasonable activity by an attorney given the totality of the situation. The RISE law group partners argue they are providing good advocacy for their clients, but a partner acknowledged in court that the firm is subject to widespread criticism within the local legal community. Some controversial fee-generating things an attorney might do are beyond the ability of judges or professional organizations to stop; what the attorneys are doing might be perfectly legal. The remedy for the local legal community could be a sympathetic plaintiff with a strong case. Or maybe the case is not strong. That is why there was a trial.

I will be writing about this.

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Saturday, February 24, 2024

Notice the daylight.

For real: This post is not about politics.

Here comes the sun, doo-doo-doo-doo
Here comes the sun
And I say, it's all right
     George Harrison, The Beatles, 1969

On the shortest day of the year, December 21, 2023, I posted about the length of daylight. I wrote that we were then in a month-long period at the low ebb of the tilted Earth. The length of daylight barely changed from day-to-day. For 25 days, from December 9 (9:09:42) through January 2 (also 9:09:42), the length of daylight fluctuated within a five minute band. Each day changed only a few seconds from the one before or after it.

It is a bit hard to picture, but because of the tilt of the Earth from the plane of the path around the sun (the ecliptic), light hitting Earth would draw an oval shape, not a round one, becoming more ovoid the closer one gets to the poles. At mid-winter and mid-summer, we are at the thin ends of the oval. There isn't as much difference from day to day at those ends of the oval as there is at the equinox. Here is that graphic I showed back in December.

It is all different now, in late February. Today, February 24 has two minutes and 46 seconds more daylight than yesterday. Each of the 29 days in February is about two and a half minutes longer than the day prior. There is more difference in daylight in a single day now than there was in two weeks back around Christmas.

Here in Medford, just above the 42nd parallel, daffodils have been out for a week now. Some trees are in blossom. Violets are in bloom. 

Grape vines are not yet leafing. The season is on my mind because starting today I will be helping a crew (i.e., observing and staying out of their way, mostly) do the first-year pruning. Grape plants looked leafy green last September:

Now they look like this:

With leaves gone, the plant is just a brown stem and hard to see in this photo. Most plants have one to three stems. What you are seeing is a metal rod the thickness of a pencil that is four feet in length, with three feet sticking out of the ground. To the left of that pencil rod is a main grape stalk with two branches starting at about the level of the plastic drip line, 14 inches off the ground. A foot above it, near the top of the photo, barely visible, is the wire line that will be the lowest wire that will support the plants. 

Here is what the vineyard looks like now.  I took off the grow-tube sleeves on those plants to the right to take the photo above. On all except the largest plants, the pruners can slide the tube up six or eight inches, find two strong buds, and cut off everything above those buds. This first year we were primarily growing roots. The sleeves have been out in the weather for nine months so they are looking ragged, but on most plants the pruners can slide the tube back down onto the now-stubby plant for a second year of use. They are made of milk-carton-like cardboard.


These are my Cabernet Sauvignon grapes adjacent to my Malbec and Pinot Noirs. The Oregon Grape Almanac reports that there are 26,257 acres planted to Pinot Noir in Oregon, making it by far the most popular variety in the state. The Willamette Valley is the major wine-growing area in Oregon, with 96,000 acres planted to grapes. My farm is in the Rogue Valley, which has about 17,000 acres planted to grapes. Summer days are much hotter here than up in the Willamette Valley, so theoretically my grapes will get riper and sweeter (higher Brix.) Maybe yes, maybe no. The vineyard is at the base of the two Table Rocks, and during frosty mornings in April and October, cold air drifts down off the sheer bluffs and creeps along the ground on its way to the Rogue River 2,000 feet away. I may have shorter seasons than most area vineyards. 

Every place is different. My soil is 100% pumice rock, ground into a fine powder. The sandy loam will allow the grape roots easy access to whatever particular qualities there are in that soil, and therefore make exceptional wine. At least I hope so.

But that is four years out. For now, the task is to prune the plants so that the strongest canes are chosen to concentrate the future growth of the plant.

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Friday, February 23, 2024

Dog bites man.

This doesn't look good.


The story of the Biden dog got worse, the more I learned. The Biden dog, Commander, had been biting people every couple of weeks for nine months. People got hurt and needed puncture wound treatment at the White House Medical Unit. 

I realize that this error by Biden is infinitesimal compared to Trump trying to undermine the Constitution. I am not claiming equivalency between being an inconsiderate dog owner and trying to overthrow the republic. Trump is worse. That said, I think Democrats must be clear-eyed about errors by fellow Democrats, whether it be in policy, in behavior, or as political malpractice. 

Commander biting people is body language. It is a thing -- an event -- that tells a story at first glance. It is a mentally sticky story because it undermines the Biden brand. It gives rise for some voters to think that the whole image of "Scranton Joe" -- the old-school supporter of the working guy -- is a hypocritical lie. I watched Joe Biden tell union firefighters he cares about them. That is the Biden in speeches.
New Hampshire, fall 2019

But actions speak louder than words. Nothing signifies disrespect and entitlement so much as Biden tolerating a dog who bites Secret Service employees. 

It looks bad because it is bad.

It exemplifies an unattractive part of the Biden story. That is the one where he tolerates intolerable behavior by members of his "family," be it Hunter or Commander. Blindness to wrongdoing speaks to Joe Biden's competence and judgment. Those are the supposed Biden strengths.

Possibly I dislike dog bites more than the average person. I was bitten on the forearm by a large dog as a five-year-old and I still remember it. Maybe some people are OK being around an aggressive dog with a reputation for biting people. I'm not.

I think Biden was a disrespectful employer and a negligent dog-owner. Commander needed at the first or second incident to be adopted out to a calmer environment. But it took two dozen incidents to persuade Biden to move Commander out of the White House last fall. And if Commander was too dangerous to be safely placed elsewhere, then he needed to be put down. What Biden could not do is tolerate owning a dog that regularly bites federal employees.

If I were on the Republican communications team, I would make a big deal about this. It would be a version of the "Swift Boat" attack strategy, where you criticize the opponent at their point of strength. 
Just look at Biden's sense of entitlement! You think he cares about working people? Ha!

Maybe the ad would have images and sound of a snarling German Shepherd. Maybe get video from a disgruntled former employee. Maybe intercut some images of Hunter so people get the connection that Joe Biden is blind to corrupt and dangerous behavior. 

Is there a defense for Joe Biden? If he claims ignorance, he risks making the point that he is a clueless. He cannot easily claim he thought Commander was improving because the incident log shows Commander kept biting at a steady pace. Maybe he can try the indulgent-parent approach, and say Commander is a good dog who was just trying to help the Secret Service protect him. Biden can present himself as a character we all know, the overindulgent dog lover. 

Some dog lovers will like him for that, but I have little sympathy for dog owners who tolerate dangerous dogs. Commander proved himself to be dangerous. My sympathies go with the employees. Biden's first loyalties were owed to them

Biden screwed up. He can apologize and hopes this fades from memory. Maybe it will. Possibly Republicans are too busy chasing fantasies of the stolen 2020 election to realize their opportunity.

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Thursday, February 22, 2024

The right wing populist era

Right-wing authoritarianism doesn't seem wrong to about half of Americans.

Each era sows the seeds of its own reversal.  We are in a new era.

William Jennings Bryan, populist

The post-Civil War era of robber baron industrialists saw economic growth marred by stock swindles, dangerous factories, unsanitary slaughterhouses, and concentration of wealth in competition-stifling monopolies. The era created a response, the Progressive Era of trust busting and reform. That era gave us the direct election of senators, the initiative, and the referendum to circumvent corrupt legislatures. Women got the vote. At the zenith of the reform impulse, people voted for Prohibition.

The 1920s were an oscillation back away from all that do-good reforming. It was back to laissez faire. Small government was good, after all. Business and businessmen were good. The Great Depression ended that era.

The New Deal Era had bi-partisan consensus. It lasted almost 50 years. People understood that government was necessary to do big things. Government ended the Depression; it built dams; it won WWII; it built an interstate highway system; it put people on the moon; it ended racial segregation; it established Medicare; it fought proxy wars against communism; and it began cleaning up our air and water. Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford were New Deal presidents. The era ran aground with the failed war in Vietnam and the intractable inflation of the 1970s. Americans decided government wasn't so competent after all.

Reagan inauguration: "Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem."

In 1980 Ronald Reagan said that government was the problem, and that sounded about right to a majority of people. Democrats got elected by bending in that direction. Both Democrats and Republicans agreed to trust markets -- the bond market, labor markets, and free trade markets between countries. The public liked spending on ourselves but not being taxed. The debt grew. Businesses liked the cheap labor of immigrants and Democrats liked treating poor immigrants with compassion. That problem grew. Free markets made richer the people with capital, but it put America's blue collar workers into direct competition with workers in Mexico and Asia. That problem grew. It was unaddressed because the people with political influence -- the educated donor class -- were doing just fine. However, a growing number of people, enough people to swing elections, were not.  A political constituency was ready for an oscillation into worker and middle class populism. By 2016 that came to a head. 

On the left Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders blamed corporate greed and suggested a European-style social welfare state. He thrilled some Democrats and frightened others. Democrats had a safe, establishment alternative in Hillary Clinton. She was a comfortable choice for college-educated Democrats, but not for blue collar ones. On the right Trump pointed at immigrants and said we needed to be self-interested and tough -- cruel if necessary.  

Trump's presidency was marked by high drama and chaos. A plurality of GOP voters liked it. Trump shook up the Supreme Court; he adopted patriotic and religious symbols; he insulted the people and institutions that condescended to the populist right. The American establishment underestimated the public's frustration with the status quo and its longstanding institutions. Trump called all those institutions corrupt: Congress, courts, corporations, medicine, academia, the career Civil Service, and the media. He said they are all part of an amorphous but pervasive Deep State conspiracy to oppress Americans -- and him.

Trump purged the GOP of dissenters. He is open and frank about the purges. Either you say nice things about him and agree, or you are an enemy. It is a credible threat. Republican politicians hasten to "kiss the ring," as Nikki Haley puts it. She is in the political wilderness, along with the people who until recently led the GOP -- the Bush family, the Cheney family, the McCain family, the Romney family. They are RINOs now. He has cleaned out potential opposition within his party.

Trump has been straightforward about his plans for a second term. He is going to drain the swamp, which means ignoring Congress and the courts, prosecuting political opponents, shaking up NATO, attacking "woke" corporations, aligning the Justice Department with him personally, and most important, addressing the immigration problem decisively and without regard for accusations of cruelty or high handedness.  

The checks, balances, and institutional guardrails against lawless government were just barely adequate in the aftermath of the 2020 election. Trump has succeeded in discrediting and eliminating those guardrails. Trump promises decisive action. The alternative to that is the sluggish, piecemeal, court-stymied, checked-and-balanced action of a constitutional republic. The prior era advantaged one kind of American to the disadvantage of the working class. It set the stage for a populist leader who is openly contemptuous of the laws and institutions that would say "no" to him.

It is not a given that Americans want a republic. A near majority of the American public has lost patience with it. It didn't serve their needs. Trump is possible because the era has changed. Historians will look back at this as the Populist Era. 

Of course, the fear is that historians will look at this as the Post-Constitution Era. Or the Fascist Era.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Downsizing: A Canadian view.

Today's post isn't about politics. Or maybe it is.

This is my fourth post about downsizing. 

It addresses the topic of when to quit -- in this case when to quit living in the house where you spent your adulthood and raised a family. Downsizing is both a thing in itself and a metaphor for a larger issue of when to accept that one has entered a new phase of life marked by the frailties of age.

Sandford Borins is a college classmate. He is a professor of Public Management Emeritus at the University of Toronto, having retired in July 2020 after a 45-year academic career. He looks at four television advertisements that address the pressure some older people get from the next generation to leave that home. The ads are for reverse mortgages, presented here as a way to allow seniors to stay longer in their homes. This guest post is from his own blog site, where he publishes his thoughts on politics and life in Canada:

There is a head's up here for people hoping Biden or Trump might decide it is time to go.  A reverse mortgage risks exhausting a senior's financial legacy. The seniors in these ads don't want to go and they resent being pushed. There is a parallel in political legacies.

A Sandford Borins selfie

Guest Post by Sandford Borins

Standing strong by staying put

I’m teaching a narrative and management course this semester and use a variety of short videos to illustrate Aristotle’s three types of persuasion: logos, or logical argument; ethos, or appeal to authority; and pathos, or emotional appeal. Commercials for reverse mortgages by Canada’s Home Equity Bank (HEB) neatly illustrate the distinction.

The most frequently aired commercials (for example last night on CBC Newsworld) rely on logos and ethos. The concept of a reverse mortgage is explained by means of graphics and an extra-diegetic narrator (logos). The retired Canadian figure skater Kurt Browning has become HEB’s spokesman, which lends him a kind of authority, though it is based on his athletic achievements rather than financial expertise (ethos). An additional appeal to authority is a graphic showing endorsements by the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP) and the Canadian Legion. The explanation of the concept is incomplete because the commercial doesn’t say that the borrower will repay the loan after selling the house, nor does it mention interest on the loan. The would-be borrower will discover these aspects when reading HEB’s brochure or calling their information line, both of which are mentioned in the commercial.


Occasionally, HEB runs commercials in which the appeal to seniors is emotional, with the message that a reverse mortgage will enable them to stay in their beloved homes. This message, as my title suggests, is that by staying at home they are resisting the inevitable deterioration of their health that is part of aging. And the commercials depict seniors as resolutely ignoring their children’s pressure, overt or subtle, to downsize. The commercials appeal to seniors’ pride in their vitality and their resentment towards a younger generation that refuses to recognize it (pathos). Here’s one such commercial.


A second commercial is more hard-hitting, with the parents responding to their adult daughter’s suggestion to move into a condo by threatening, tongue in cheek of course, to move in with their daughter and her husband. The parents are implicitly saying, “if you try to infantilize us, we can infantilize you.” Have a look.


A third commercial borders on sketchy. A mother and her adult daughter are having tea; when the daughter sees her father walking awkwardly, she asks her mother if he threw his back out on the stairs, drawing the conclusion that her parents should downsize. When the mother coyly replies that “it wasn’t the stairs,” the daughter, catching her mother’s drift, looks disgusted. The commercial channels the notion, embodied in the psychoanalytic term “primal scene,” that one’s parents’ sexuality is intrinsically cringe-worthy. The mother is boasting of her vitality because she remains sexually desirable and sexually active. This commercial is logically flawed, because whether the parents live in their current home or something smaller should have no impact on their sexuality. But sexuality is used as an indicator of the parents’ youthfulness.


I find these pathos-evoking commercials valuable, because in a humorous way, they raise several fraught issues between aging parents and adult children: parental independence, eventual dependence of parents on their children, and the intergenerational transfer of wealth.

These commercials came to mind just now because our young adult children, who normally live with us as a response to Toronto’s expensive housing market, are away this week. The house feels very large. But, unlike the commercials, they’re in no hurry for us to leave. In fact, next week we’re having the house painted. So here we stand.


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