Ockham’s Razor

Simple explanations — not implausible scenarios or convoluted conspiracies — are most likely to be correct. This well-known dictum is attributed to William of Ockham: Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate. Pluralities — complexities in a theory — must not be asserted without necessity. Never suppose multiple, interlocking explanations when a single, simple reason is sufficient

It is a rule easily tested by common sense and everyday experience. Consider these two well-known, well-worn statements:

  1. The dog ate my homework.
  2. I didn’t do my homework.

Few people would choose (1) as the likeliest explanation: it is neither simple nor particularly credible. The addition of more details about the assignment’s encounter with domesticated animals (“My homework flew out the bus window and a cow ate it”) only serves to make the matter worse.

Donald Trump won’t admit he lost the election; more disturbing, many of his followers can’t accept the simple idea that although 74 million people voted for Trump, setting a record, over six million more voted for Mr. Biden. Having heard the phrase “rigged election” over and over, they conclude — without examining the premise — that it must be rigged; their guy lost, after all. Enter Sidney Powell, loudly proclaiming that Trump’s defeat could only be the result of fraud; and, moreover, a fraud so far-reaching that it was orchestrated by none other than Hugo Chavez — who died in 2013.

News flash for Messrs. Trump and Giuliani, and for Ms. Powell: That is how democracy works. “Your guy” doesn’t win every time; sometimes the other guy, the other party, the other philosophy of government, wins the day and has its chance.

Special attention should be paid, these days, to that phrase: Philosophy of government. For the Republican Party has ceased to have anything resembling an organizing principle; instead we have terse slogans (“Small government! Freedom!”) and a determination to use politics to remain in power, rather than to craft compromise legislation that will serve their constituents. The present spectacle — a legislature that cannot legislate, cannot provide financial relief for millions of people forced into unemployment during a pandemic — is more than just a case in point: it is a fitting finale to years of brinksmanship and gamesmanship instead of statesmanship, the logical conclusion to a decades-long showdown between a party that believes in government and compromise, and a party that believes only in its own ability to exercise raw power.

Nobody believes the kid who says, “The dog ate my homework.” Absent hard facts, the simpler solution is most likely true. Unlike the case of the wind blowing papers into the path of a grazing bovine — multiple credible witnesses swore they were on the bus and saw it happen — nobody has yet offered a single actual fact suggesting election fraud on any scale, let alone of a magnitude necessary to produce 81 million votes. The dog didn’t eat the homework, and Donald didn’t win the election. Both of them — and all of us — would be better off if they accepted reality.

Bad Faith

Just prior to Election Day a friend observed that we’re going to need new laws and new structures to prevent the corruption, self-dealing, and looting of the public treasury that have been the hallmarks of the Trump administration. “We can’t have ‘acting this’ and ‘acting that,’” my friend said. “We need to ensure accountability.” I told him that the laws already exist, and have for some time: but that enforcement is up to the Congress and the courts. With the Senate operating as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Trump, Inc.; and with a significant fraction of the Federal bench occupied by Trump appointees, the likelihood of anything actually being done is vanishingly small.

The problem isn’t that laws and structures don’t exist. The guardrails haven’t done much guarding these last four years, proving to be not such solid railings or firm barriers; rather, it turns out they are just suggestions, only as strong as public outrage and the other branches’ willingness and ability to enforce standards of behavior that have served the Republic well for two-hundred and forty-four years. I mention both “willingness” and “ability” because — as it turns out — the current administration has decided that the rules that have applied to every predecessor do not apply here. They have defied both congressional demands and court orders with alacrity, zealously undermining the institutions of democratic self-government while loudly claiming to speak “for the people.”

Well, the people have spoken and Donald Trump has been fired. He claims — falsely, as always — to have won with a “record” number of votes; and yes, his tally was indeed record-setting: more than ever for a second-place candidate. And let’s be absolutely clear: Biden’s victory was decisive, a margin of six million votes — nearly four percent. In an age when many elections are won and lost on razor-thin fractions, four percent is a landslide.

But the presidential falsehoods and GOP bad faith continue unabated: Dozens of failed lawsuits in multiple jurisdictions and attempts to strong-arm state elections boards and legislatures in Republican-led states will not change the outcome but they will undermine public confidence in elections, to the point where — as comedian Sarah Cooper tweeted recently — voters are asking courts to ignore the will of the voters. Reduced to its starkest terms: elections are legitimate if “we” win, but fraudulent if “they” win.

Of course it’s a bad faith argument. The essence of democracy — of voting — is that the outcome isn’t going to please everyone, all the time. Sometimes you win; sometimes you lose. That’s how the system works (when it works). Or as Christopher Krebs — fired last week for bucking Trump’s message that the election was fraught with fraud — noted last year, the purpose of elections is to convince the loser that he lost. This isn’t how we normally think about voting, but it’s dead on. Trump knows he lost; the people around him know he lost; Republican officials at all levels know that he lost. That they continue to sow doubt and stir up mistrust; that they say either nothing at all, or demur quaintly about “rights” to pursue false claims in court, says far more about them than it does about the actual results. They would cling to power by any means possible, the people be damned.

In 1982 the Republican candidate for New York’s 20th Congressional District (Upper West Side) lost overwhelmingly, 85%-15%. Of his defeat he remarked: “The people have spoken. The bastards.” If only today’s GOP could accept electoral outcomes with as much grace and dignity.

Fatigue (III)

It was a few months ago that Keegan-Michael Key, appearing on “A Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” said he was exhausted. It was early June, immediately after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, and he was expressing frustration with the racial imbalances — what we have come to understand, since then, as systemic racism — and seemingly never-ending inequality in this, the Land of the Free, where it is self-evident that all men are created equal. Aren’t they?

We are all exhausted: By the unrest and inequality; by the ineptitude and incompetence; by the needlessly high death count; by the lies; by the scandals; by the grift and self-dealing. We are exhausted, simply exhausted, to the point where we are too fatigued to lift a finger let alone raise our voices in anger and cry out together, as one, “Enough!” But the truth is that fatigue is not simply a by-product of the never-ending insults to our national integrity; nor are we exhausted only because we lack the energy, at the end of each long day, to push back against a government and executive appointees who will help themselves but not the people they work for and serve. Corrupt officialdom gives “self service” a whole new meaning.)

As we have seen with the child-separation policy, where the cruelty is the point: The exhaustion and fatigue are the point. Benumb us with your outrages, your corruption, your inhumanity, your incompetence, your sheer stupidity, and we will lack the energy to rise up and strike back. We simply don’t know where to begin: With emoluments? Children deliberately orphaned? Corrupt cabinet secretaries? Incompetent senior advisers? The executive branch of our government has become a criminal enterprise, eagerly aided and abetted by a senate majority that clings to power for its own sake and not for what it can do to improve constituents’ lives. The entire theory and purpose of our representative government has been turned upside down and inside out.

Despite best efforts to convince us otherwise, we are not powerless. We are not voiceless. We are not insignificant. E pluribus unum isn’t just a fancy phrase on our coins. Out of many, one; in unity there is strength. A single vote is an inaudible  whisper, but 250 million together is a category 5 hurricane that cannot be ignored. We don’t have to agree on everything — and we shouldn’t. We won’t always agree on the meaning of the First Amendment, nor of the Second, nor of the Fifth; we won’t always agree about gun policy, welfare policy, education policy, or foreign policy, but we must be able and willing to discuss them, honestly and openly, without resort to name-calling and demonization. We all want a stronger, better, more equal United States. Our ideas about how to achieve those goals differ. We have to re-learn how to talk to each other, and how to compromise.

But despite our differences we should, at a minimum, be able to agree that deliberate cruelty is wrong; that foreign interference in an election is an affront to voters of every political persuasion; that bribery is a crime no matter what the circumstances or who the actors. We should be able to agree that health care and education are rights, not privileges, and that they should be guaranteed by a government for the people. And we should be able to agree that if government of the people ceases to be both by the people and, most of all, for the people, then it is no longer legitimate and must be replaced.

This Tuesday, vote. Vote like your life and your liberty depend on it — because they do. Vote to restore government by and for the people. Vote for humanity and basic decency. Vote to end the madness.

Trust (III)

“Trust is what makes the world work.” Right now, the world is not working for too many people in America. There is widespread distrust of government. Only the ruling class benefits when political gamesmanship takes the place of statesmanship: people busy with their lives, people trying to make ends meet, have neither time nor inclination to analyze the reasons; they know only that their needs are not being met, they tune out the politicians, and they don’t show up at the polls. The ultimate consequence of this systemic voter suppression is to make nearly every seat a safe seat; and so the pols respond not to the real needs of their constituents but to the loudest voices: those who exercise their voting rights. And though it might serve the elected officials well, by keeping them in office — lifetime sinecures, really — it amounts to the death-spiral of democracy by discouraging ever larger numbers from bothering to vote.

Trust makes the world work: in education, in commerce, in finance, in government. If we can’t trust our institutions to do their jobs, they fail us and all future generations. Cronyism and baksheesh are the ways of desert tribes and banana republics, not the beacon of the free world. In the United States today we see that virtually no one trusts government institutions: if it isn’t a deep distrust born of police excesses, systemic injustices, and income disparities that affect every aspect of life; then it is wild conspiracy theories about vaccines, school curricula, voting rights, and climate science. The market for tinfoil hats has never been stronger.

As I write this, reality has finally caught up with the reality-show president. After six months of denying the threat, doubting the science, denigrating public health professionals, Trump has tested positive for Covid-19. It is surprising that it has taken this long given his refusal to take the basic precautions recommended by public health officials around the world, as if an acknowledgement of vulnerability to disease (by wearing a mask, for example) is a sign of personal weakness. “I learned a lot about Covid,” he says glibly. “I learned it by really going to school. This is the real school. This isn’t the let’s-read-the-books school. And I get it. And I understand it. And it’s a very interesting thing and I’m going to be letting you know about it.” So ten months after the first warnings from our national security apparatus we are supposed to believe that he “gets it” because he has the disease. Warnings weren’t enough; briefings weren’t sufficient; 210,000 American deaths (and over 1 million worldwide) made no impact. As he has his entire adult life, Trump sees himself at the center of everything. Unless he is sick, a global pandemic has no real meaning.

We have gone from a government that many simply didn’t trust, to government that no one can trust. The reasons for past mistrust of government are many and varied, and help explain (in part) how we came to our present predicament. The reason nobody can trust today’s government is quite simple: when it is impossible to know whether anyone is speaking the truth it is safest to assume that none of them is. Some of the lies are obvious; some are outed as falsehoods soon after they are uttered; and still others might not be known until days later when they are flatly contradicted by the next statement of alternative fact.

The problem, of course, is that this is real life. We find ourselves now living not in the world where “up” and “down” are clear directions; instead we inhabit the conspiracy-driven dystopia of a Thomas Pynchon novel. It’s good entertainment but an abysmal alternative to science and the rule of law.

A National Strategy Requires a National Government

Like so many Americans, I find myself envying nations that have a national government, and all that implies: A national sense of purpose; a national strategy for testing and tracing; a national plan for a public health crisis. There was a time when the United States had purpose, whether it was defeat of the Axis or putting a man on the moon. “We’re going to win!” is neither a goal, nor a strategy for achieving one. And, “We’re going to win so much, you’ll be tired of all the winning!” What does that actually mean? It is tautological, nonsensical, risible. “Winning” in this telling is undefined and lives (if it lives anywhere) beyond the looking glass, where words are just sounds with no actual meaning:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

 Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

It’s a sure bet that Donald Trump hasn’t read the book, nor would he understand the exchange. Irony, as they say, is not his long suit. At least, not intentionally.

Any dream of a national purpose must wait for another day; the pressing need, today, is for a national strategy: the novel coronavirus is among us and is not leaving any time soon. The national response has been botched — because in truth there was no national response. We had, instead, fifty state responses, some more successful than others but all of them at risk: the weak responses in a very real sense threaten the stronger ones. Our constitution guarantees freedom of movement, and while the governor of (for example) New York can require travelers from Texas and Florida to self-isolate for two weeks after arrival, it is only a matter of time before someone decides to make a literal Federal case out of a very real and very practical exercise of the state’s police power. Health and safety be damned, because this is America!

Meanwhile, in the real world: over 30 million people are unemployed; over 5 million have contracted Covid-19; over 160,000 have died from the disease, and 1,000 more die each day. (Our infection rate has been doubling about every six weeks; at that pace, by May or June the entire nation will be Covid-positive, a stunning achievement. If “winning” means, “create a nation of lepers”: mission accomplished.) And the United States Senate, the self-styled “world’s most deliberative body,” can neither deliberate nor negotiate nor even formulate legislation that might help  American citizens survive — pay the rent, buy groceries — until the pandemic subsides and the jobs actually do come back. Bear in mind that formulating legislation is the actual job of senators: it is their primary responsibility, enshrined right there in the job title: “legislator, upper body.”

For anyone who might be persuaded by the argument that “the House refuses to negotiate,” please bear in mind that the House actually passed legislation in May. The Senate (and the White House) chose to wait until the expiration of the March bill (July 31) before even beginning negotiations, evidently in the hope that Democrats would be persuaded of the urgency of passing anything and would thus accept whatever weak last-minute tea the Republicans brewed. (The Republicans, for their part, can’t even agree among themselves what to ask for or try to pass. So much for their legendary party unity.) It has taken a generation, but the Democrats — and Speaker Pelosi — have gotten wise to this game and aren’t having it.

Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee — under Lindsay Graham’s “leadership” — grills Sally Yates about the spooks under the bed. (Ms. Yates wasn’t having it, either, and deftly put the majority in its place.) Writing legislation is the Senate’s primary job, but by all means let’s ask more questions about Hilary’s emails, eight years after the fact. Changing the subject is a time-tested method of distracting attention from your failures, collectively as a legislative body as well as individually.

By most accounts the American people aren’t buying, not this time. There is an actual plague in the land, and the federal government isn’t doing anything to control the spread or mitigate the effects. We’re on our own, until we’re able to put people in government who are actually interested in doing the hard work of governing.

A Crisis of His Own Making

In the beginning it was popular, among the so-called chattering classes — the op-ed pages, the Sunday talk shows, drive-time radio — to refer to the Covid-19 pandemic as the first crisis Trump has faced that is not of his own making. (It’s not quote true, of course: there was Maria and the devastation our citizens in Puerto Rico are still suffering, three years on. Trump didn’t create the storm, but the lasting effects were made far worse by his customary blend of indifference, insensitivity, inaction, indolence, and incompetence.) Crises in the Trump era have been, most notably, the foreign policy blunders and debacles: North Korea, Iran, Turkey, Brazil… the list goes on, and each and every one actually started with Trump.

And now, Covid-19.

The alarms were first rung at least in late December 2019 — fully seven months ago, if not more. Trump ignored them. A month went by, and further disturbing intelligence emerged — and Trump ignored it. Worse, the National Security Directorate tasked with managing a pandemic response had been disbanded and the literal book on health crisis management, a sixty-plus page manual developed by the Obama administration, had been tossed aside by people so sure of their own abilities that nobody in the history of the world could possibly teach them anything. Seven months later — when the rest of the world has returned to normal and has resumed life as usual, the United States struggles: over 1,000 dead each day (compared with perhaps a dozen in all of Europe); nearly 150,000 dead since March; the mortality rate continues its grim ascent parallel to the long handle of the hockey stick; and over 4.5 million known cases. Trump insists that we test more, and therefore have more cases. No: nor will eliminating biopsies cure cancer. That any adult would say this might be amusing; for such dissembling nonsense to spew daily from the Oval Office is terrifying.

So is this truly not a crisis of Trump’s own making? The facts suggest otherwise. The signal event — the virus’s species jump — was surely beyond anyone’s control; the reaction to that event, and how to manage its consequences, is entirely within the control of any government interested in doing its job. Trump prefers to preen and posture; rolling up his sleeves and doing actual work is far beyond his capabilities. By ignoring facts, science, and a set of written instructions left by the previous administration, Trump has exacerbated a crisis that, properly managed, might have been over by March; instead it is now a raging plague that will be with us for years to come.

Historians are forever telling us that every president campaigns on domestic issues and is soon consumed by international affairs — hot spots and flareups that the United States must address in its capacity as beacon to the world and, since 1990, sole superpower. In the age of Trump the United States no longer lights the way except in the strictly negative sense: don’t do this, more pratfall than pragmatism. It’s not that we have become the problem so much as we have lost control of the entire enterprise; and feeling now out of control we have no real idea how to correct course. Our democracy is threatened by those sworn to protect it and the American experiment in self-governance is closer to burning out than it has ever been in its 244 year history. The beacon of the world is perilously close to self-extinguishing.

Presidents, and crises, come and go. That Trump would both by his actions, and by inaction, create crisis after crisis was predictable. But the only cure, the only lasting remedy, is to look beyond Trump and acknowledge and act upon what our founders knew in their bones. As we consider the Trump Trifecta — a pandemic, record unemployment, and rampant social injustice — we might bear in mind the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel from just fifty years ago, when he joined the ranks of protesters in an earlier age of social unrest and upheaval:

There is immense silent agony in the world, and the task of man is to be a voice for the plundered poor, to prevent the desecration of the soul and the violation of our dream of honesty.

The more deeply immersed I became in the thinking of the prophets, the more powerfully it became clear to me what the lives of the Prophets sought to convey: that morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.

The Prophets aren’t going to lead us out of this low ebb in our history; only the collective voices of all Americans, shouted as one on November 3, can begin to reverse the tide and begin the long road to redemption and restoration to greatness. In a free society some are guilty, but all are responsible. Trump and his enablers might be guilty; but we are all responsible to send them packing.

The Last Refuge

Patriotism, Samuel Johnson memorably said, is the last refuge of a scoundrel: Those who would defend the indefensible invariably, inevitably wave the flag. Then they wrap themselves in it. The tactic — too often effective against a credulous public — is designed to distract from their own corrupt and corrosive activities that serve not to strengthen the republic so much as permanently ensconce themselves in power.

So it is with Senate Republicans, particularly (these last weeks, at least) those on the Judiciary Committee: while Trump literally tears us apart and tries to burn down the nation, Lindsay Graham wants to hold hearings. Into Trump? AG Bill Barr’s shameless coddling of convicted felons (and Trump cronies) Roger Stone and Michael Flynn? No! The FBI! Investigate the investigators who investigated Trump! While Trump fires all the independent government watchdogs — the Inspectors General of State, Defense, Transportation, HHS, and Intelligence. And how does Charles Grassley, who built a decades-long reputation as a defender of government accountability, react? A meek letter asking the president, please, if you would be so kind as to indulge me sir, to explain, and forgive the temerity of my question.

In the last four months we have all aged four years, if we were paying attention.

Intellectual (Dis)Honesty

Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump don’t want to defund the police. A sloppy slogan — which Carlson, at least, knows doesn’t mean what he says it means — has become a rallying point for the collapsing conservative movement and Trumpism. “Defund the police” doesn’t mean — as, again, Carlson is surely aware and which Trump might or might not be — abolish the police, dismantle the police, disband the police, dismiss the police, or even replace the police.

What it does mean is simply this: we ask the police to do too much, and it’s long past time we cut back on their mission to allow them to focus on the things only a well-trained professional police force can do. It’s time to stop asking them to be social workers, truant officers, mental health professionals, suicide prevention counsellors, poison control specialists, drug treatment counsellors, election monitors, and the thousand-and-one sundry other things we throw money at the police to do because, well, it’s just easier than hiring people who actually trained for this or want to do that.

The truth is, the police are failing right now: they fail because of mission creep. “Protect and serve” was never meant to mean, “Protect our bloated budgets and we will serve your political interests.” The answer, it seems (to listen to the Tucker Carlsons and Sean Hannitys of the world), is to repair and reform the police, presumably by throwing more money at them.

These are the same people, mind, who believe that failing public schools should be defunded — by which they mean, disbanded and shut down. Take the education budget and shovel it towards the private sector where it won’t so much educate children as enrich the well-connected, in much the same way the law-enforcement dollars spent on tanks and riot gear don’t keep the peace so much they as effect an enormous transfer of wealth out of the public coffers.

It has long been an article of faith in conservative circles that competition is a sort of magic bullet that will solve every problem. Schools not doing the job? Take away their money and inject some competition into the system, and may the best school win! Health insurance not covering your expenses? Competition is here to save you! Just read the fine print from every carrier and make an informed decision!

Public schools fail for the same reason policing fails: the ever-expanding mandate makes it impossible to focus on the core mission. If we want everyone to have a future in this country — black children, white children, special-needs children, gifted children, everybody’s children — we might take a few minutes to consider why the answer for one failing institution is to withhold funding; and for the other, to continue to throw money at the problem.

It’s past time for the proponents of charter schools and school vouchers, and the defenders of shockingly abusive police practices — so often the same people — to be honest about their agendas. The results of your intellectual dishonesty are always, always deadly.

Banana Republicans

“It was the greatest crime in the history of our country,” says Trump. “It’s been going on and it’s still going on and it should never happen again.” What was the crime? asked Philip Rucker of The Washington Post. “You know what it was. It’s very obvious to everyone. You can read about it in every newspaper except yours.” Well, then, what was the crime? “Next question.”

There’s so much to unpack here; there is really nothing to unpack here. Of course it’s another lie, another smokescreen, another attempt to deflect responsibility and blame, all while keeping himself in the spotlight. It’s quite a talent, one worthy of admiration if it weren’t so disgusting. There is no crime, except the one Michael Flynn admitted — twice. There is nothing “going on” either now or “for a very long time.” Nothing about it is obvious except the Hail Mary nature of the accusation.

Since conservatives (by definition) want to conserve: what’s with the wrecking ball aimed at the institutions of democracy? When the Justice Department wants to withdraw a guilty plea in its own prosecution we are become, officially, a banana republic. That sounds like a betrayal of conservative principles unless your objective is ruling and not governing.