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(This essay is an elaboration of Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems).

Imagine that I offered each person in a group the following deal: You can agree to give me $30, and in return I’ll give $10 to each and every person in the group, including you. I’ll give the $10 to everyone, whether they paid $30 or not, for each person that does pay $30.

Each person is faced with an offer to pay $30 dollars in return for, to him or her individually, $10, a bad deal for that individual (a loss of $20). But since everyone else in the group also each gets $10, for any group with a membership of more than three people, it is a bigger return to the group than cost to the group. If there are 10 people in the group, and everyone makes the deal, they each pay $30 and each get $100 in return, for a net gain of $70. However, if one doesn’t pay, he or she gets $90 outright (9 people taking the deal times $10 to each person in the group) while each of the others only get a net gain of $60 ($90 minus the $30 paid in). The individual incentive is not to pay in, even though everyone is better off the more people who do, with everyone coming out ahead if 3 or more people pay in. Those who don’t pay in, however, always do better than those who do (the “free rider problem”).

This dynamic is a major underlying force in the generation of social institutions, which to a large degree exist to overcome this collective action problem. There are many scenarios woven throughout our collective existence in which people benefit from some form of cooperation (even those forms that establish the rules for competition, such as the enforcement of property rights in service to the functioning of markets), but are tempted by individual incentives to cheat or fail to act cooperatively. Our laws, our contracts, our governments, our social norms, our ideologies, all are laden with mechanisms that have evolved with the purpose of creating mutual commitment mechanisms, enforced either externally by social institutions or internally to one’s own psychological make-up. Combined, they form social institutional technologies which are robust sets of memes self-replicating and spreading throughout our shared cognitive landscape (see the essays linked to in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts).

It has always been a dynamic at the heart of intertribal and international relations, in which sovereign societies must strategically interact in a world with limited international legal enforcement mechanisms. With increasing political, economic and cultural globalization, and information, communication and transportation technologies make the world ever smaller and more tightly integrated, examining these dynamics is one critical component of understanding the shared geopolitical landscape in which we live.

“The War of the Woods”:

Imagine that long ago, two countries, Apestonia and Pulgalandia, had a forest on their border. Both countries desperately needed the wood in the forest, because it was both their primary building material and their fuel. Each country was faced with the choice of either dividing the forest evenly, or attacking the other and trying to get more of the forest for themself.

There are 1000 acres of forest between the two countries. If the two countries agree to draw their border right through the middle of it, they can each have 500 acres of forest, which they both desperately need.

But if one attacks quickly while the other one is planning on sharing the forest evenly (and so isn’t prepared for war), the one that attacks will capture 700 acres of the forest, 300 acres will be burnt or destroyed during the fighting, and the other will get zero acres. Since they are militarily evenly matched, if they both attack each other at the same time, 400 acres of forest will be destroyed in the fighting, and they’ll each end up with 300 acres of forest.

Here’s a table that summarizes these choices and outcomes:

Pulgalandia Apestonia Cooperate(don’t attack) Don’t Cooperate(attack) Cooperate

(don’t attack) Apestonia: 500 Acres

Pulgalandia: 500 Acres Apestonia: 0 Acres

Pulgalandia: 700 Acres Don’t Cooperate

(attack) Apestonia: 700 Acres

Pulgalandia: 0 Acres Apestonia: 300 Acres

Pulgalandia: 300 Acres

Each country faces the following logic: “We don’t know what the other country will do. If they decide to cooperate (not attack first), we will get 500 acres if we also cooperate, but 700 acres if we don’t (if we attack unprovoked). Therefore, if they cooperate, we are better off not cooperating (attacking). If they decide not to cooperate (to attack), then we will get zero acres if we cooperate (don’t attack), but 300 acres if we don’t (if we attack). Therefore, no matter what the other country does, we are better off attacking.”

However, if both countries follow that logic, they each end up with 300 acres, though if they had cooperated and split the forest, they would have each ended up with 500 acres. So, while each country has an incentive to attack, if they can find a way to commit one another to cooperation, they both benefit.

So, even though they have a conflict over the forest, they have a shared interest in finding a way to commit one another to cooperating for mutual benefit. This is often the case, with war being costly in blood and treasure, and peaceful coexistence (and even mutually beneficial exchange) being far more conducive to general prosperity.

Historically, real tribes and countries have faced this challenge. Some have said, “Okay, let’s agree to cooperate, and to make sure no one cheats, we’ll exchange hostages.” And then each country would send an important member of their own society (often the ruler’s daughter to be raised by the other ruler as his or her own) to go live with the other society, so that if either cheats, that hostage can be killed in retaliation. Later, countries sent the children of royalty to marry the children of royalty in other countries, sort of as “permanent hostages,” but also to bind the countries together so that they can act more cooperatively.

In the modern world, we’ve developed a much more elaborate system of international diplomacy, with embassies in each other’s countries, and treaties, and international organizations (like the United Nations). The European Union, whose roots go back to post-WWII efforts to create economic ties that would diminish the chances of resumed warfare, is perhaps the most advanced example of emerging international political economic consolidation

Not just internationally, but within nations, overcoming this collective action problem is a big part of why we’ve created many of the social institutions we’ve created. Our Constitution, our laws, even our religions, have developed in many ways to help make it easier for people to commit one another to mutually beneficial actions even when they have individual incentives to cheat or act in non-cooperative ways.

With modern technologies, modern weapons (such as nuclear weapons), modern transportation and communication technologies, an increasingly global economy, increasingly global environmental and natural resource issues, all nations in the world face many collective action problems. Our increasing political globalization is a complex tapestry of conflict and cooperation woven within this underlying logic.

So far, we’ve assumed that the countries were equally matched, and looked at the cost-benefit analysis of each when considering whether to attack the other or to live in peace. But what if they weren’t evenly matched? What if one was militarily stronger than the other? How would that change things?

If Apestonia were more powerful than Pulgalandia, then Apestonia would capture more forest than Pulgalandia would if the two went to war. If Apestonia were to attack first, perhaps it would capture the whole forest against the weaker Pulgalandia, losing only a small portion (let’s say a tenth) in battle. This outcome can be seen in the lower-left square of the two-by-two table, in which Apestonia attacks first and captures 900 acres, while Pulgalandia ends up with zero.

Conversely, if Pulgalandia attacks first, it will gain the advantage of surprise, but will still be facing a superior force, and might manage to capture and control 300 acres against Apestonia’s 500, 200 being lost to the destruction of war. This outcome is summarized in the upper-right square.

Pulgalandia Apestonia Cooperate(don’t attack) Don’t Cooperate (attack) Cooperate

(don’t attack) Apestonia: 800 Acres

Pulgalandia: 200 Acres Apestonia: 500 Acres

Pulgalandia: 300 Acres Don’t Cooperate

(attack) Apestonia: 900 Acres

Pulgalandia: 0 Acres Apestonia: 600 Acres

Pulgalandia: 100 Acres

If they both attack each other at the same time, more forest will be lost to the destruction of battle, and neither will have the benefit of surprise, but Apestonia will still come out ahead. This is reflected in the lower-right square.

Because of the difference in power, when they negotiate a peace in which neither attacks, Apestonia can demand more of the forest than Pulgalandia. This is reflected in the upper-left square.

The logic that the two countries face is still similar to the logic that they faced when equally powerful. Neither knows what the other will do. Apestonia says to itself, “If Pulgalandia cooperates (doesn’t attack), we can get 800 acres for also cooperating (not attacking), or 900 acres for attacking. If Pulgalandia doesn’t attack, we are better off attacking. If Pulgalandia does attack, we can get 500 acres for not attacking first (only reacting to their attack), and 600 for attacking first, so, again, we are better off attacking. No matter what Pulgalandia does, we’re better off attacking.

Similarly, Pulgalandia is better off attacking no matter what Apestonia do. They say to themselves, “If Apestonia doesn’t attack first, we get 200 acres for also not attacking, but 300 for attacking, and if Apestonia does attack first, we get zero acres for not having attacked at the same time but 100 acres for having attacked at the same time. Either way, we’re better off attacking.”

But they both know this, and both know that they’d be better off not attacking one another. So, just as before, they need to invest in some way of committing one another to cooperation.

But the pay-offs can look different as well. It may be that, while the weaker Pulgalandia has incentives to attack no matter what the stronger Apestonia does, Apestonia gets a stronger benefit from cooperation. In the chart below, Pulgalandia still is better off attacking no matter what Apestonia does, and Apestonia, knowing that, knows it has to attack to get 550 rather than 500 acres. This is reflected in the table below:

Pulgalandia Apestonia Cooperate(don’t attack) Don’t Cooperate (attack) Cooperate

(don’t attack) Apestonia: 800 Acres

Pulgalandia: 200 Acres Apestonia: 500 Acres

Pulgalandia: 250 Acres Don’t Cooperate

(attack) Apestonia: 650 Acres

Pulgalandia: 100 Acres Apestonia: 550 Acres

Pulgalandia: 200 Acres

But the most Pulgalandia can possibly get is 250 acres, if they attack before Apestonia does. Apestonia can just say, “look, we’ll give you 300 acres, 50 more than you can possibly get by attacking us. We’ll keep 700, which is more than we can get in any other way. If you attack, even while we are planning on cooperating with you, you lose 50 acres. You have no reason to attack, and we’re both better off than we can otherwise be.”

This is reflected in the table below, in which neither country has any incentive to do anything other than cooperate:

Pulgalandia Apestonia Cooperate(don’t attack) Don’t Cooperate (attack) Cooperate

(don’t attack) Apestonia: 700 Acres

Pulgalandia: 300 Acres Apestonia: 500 Acres

Pulgalandia: 250 Acres Don’t Cooperate

(attack) Apestonia: 650 Acres

Pulgalandia: 100 Acres Apestonia: 550 Acres

Pulgalandia: 200 Acres

This is an illustration of how power is exercised among nations (or factions within a nation), even without having to exert any military force at all to do it. Nations know their relative power to one another, and when they negotiate treaties and deals they negotiate agreements that favor the more powerful. When the United States was formed, the more powerful (populous) states made sure that their power was reflected in the new government (by having representatives in Congress proportional to their population). When the United Nations charter was drafted, the most powerful nations insisted on forming a “security council,” that had far more power over the organization than other nations did.

Weak nations sometimes have the power of threatening to create problems for stronger nations, and thus get concessions to keep them calm. But nations also sometimes have leaders or governments that cease to act rationally, like the current government of North Korea seems to not be acting rationally.

Of course, if, in the end, the United States, worried about an irrational nuclear armed North Korea, gives them large amounts of aid to keep them from causing problems, then it will have turned out that North Korea’s “craziness” was pretty smart after all…. Strategies that “trump” rational considerations can be very rational strategies, including various ways of binding oneself to a limited range of options in order to increase one’s own bargaining power, or behaving in ways which make an opponent question one’s rationality in order to make them more accommodating for fear of erratic responses.

The scenarios presented above are highly simplified, leaving out many factors, such as uncertainty (real actors in such situations don’t know what the exact outcomes of various combinations of choices will be), more complexity in available options (not just binary choices), more interacting actors (not just two), more conflated issues being bargained over (not just a single resource), more costs and benefits to be considered (not just the amount of that single resource gained or lost), factional conflict across levels (different interest groups and political parties vying for different outcomes due to differing material interests and political ideological orientations), less centralized decision-making (not a single ruler making unlimited autocratic decisions, but rather in various ways collective decision-making processes impinging on the negotiations between actors constituted in that way), and various intrusions of emotional and irrational considerations, that even rational actors have to take into account.

But the complexity of the real world does not mean that abstraction from it is not a helpful tool in understanding underlying dynamics. Rather, it is a way of isolating individual dimensions of those underlying dynamics, gradually adding in enough of the complexity to begin to capture a deeper and subtler understanding of how our social institutional landscape really functions.

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Sex and politics both have a long and frequently sordid history, both separately and together. It’s time for some perspective, and for a divorce between these two spheres of interest as spheres of interest.

First, let’s acknowledge that human beings are fallible, that those who we hold up as paragons of virtue more often than not have foibles of their own, and that the fact of human fallibility should cease to be a cause celebre each time we find ourselves astonished by its unsurprising recurrence.

Second, let’s acknowledge that politics is about power, whether for benevolent purposes or personal aggrandizement, and that, to varying degrees and in various senses, sex is about power as well, whether the power to seduce and benefit in some way from that seduction or the power to create bonds of love, either simply for the mutual benefits of the most comprehensive of all human partnerships, or to bring new human beings into existence, and nurture and guide these beautiful creatures in ways which fill one with pride and joy. In most instances, human existence being messy and complex, some mixture of the benevolent and base is implicated in each new chapter of both an individual’s sexuality and, when they have a political career, in the progress of that career as well.

Even the purest of new love is cultivated in a fire of mutual seduction (as in nature, where peacock feathers and oversized antlers and various struttings are the norm), and even the noblest of political causes requires seducing people with a compelling idea. Is it any wonder, then, that the two are often conflated, even if in ways which elicit a collective moan from the mesmerized onlookers?

My point here, however, is not to discuss the natural if uncomfortable articulation of sex and politics, but rather to discuss why we just shouldn’t care. Politics is not and should not be the art of finding and promoting paragons of moral virtue, both because being a paragon of moral virtue is a poor qualification for the job of acting as an agent of our collective will in a responsible and effective way, and because more often than not our judgments about others’ moral virtues are easily and frequently deceived. More perceived paragons of moral virtue are power-crazy megalomaniacs than are people less deluded and/or deluding about who and what they really are.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was generally recognized to be the third great American president (until recent ideological lunacy began more stridently to rewrite history and recover the political cultural errors that he had so successfully diminished), and yet he had an affair (and was wheelchair-bound t’boot). John Kennedy had his political strengths and weaknesses, but was a complete philanderer. The list goes on, and even a passing bit of careful consideration leads to the conclusion that there is no visible correlation between sexual virtue and fidelity on the one hand, and political virtue and effectiveness on the other.

Today, we have Weiner’s weiner and John Edwards’ general yuckiness making the rounds. Sure, let’s have our fun at their expense (or not), but let’s not confuse that with political discourse, or anything relevant to political discourse. I disliked Edwards, politically, before I ever had any reason to think he might have had an affair, and though his affair is completely compatible with the reasons I disliked him, it is incidental to both their existence and anyone’s realization of their existence. If you couldn’t see that he was a narcissist before finding out that he was a narcissist, you just weren’t paying attention.

Not that a little narcissism is necessarily a bad thing in a politician. If Edwards had won the presidency prior to being revealed to all and sundry to be a true sleezebag, he would still have been better suited to the job than the most virtuous of right-wing zealots, because he would have at least been performing his job with an understanding that it involves some consideration of the public interest and particularly of the needs of the most disadvantaged. It wouldn’t matter that much to me whether he was doing so in order to get others to adore him as much as he adored himself, or in service to a sincere and deeply held altruism, just as long as he was doing the job we all should want our elected officials to be doing.

Because, when push comes to shove, politics is not about the people we are electing to office; it is about the ways in which we order our own collective existence. Certainly, all things being equal, we want the most responsible, caring, and intelligent people to hold those very critical positions in this shared endeavor. But all things are not equal, including our ability to make those moral judgments with any accuracy, and the degree of their relative relevance vis-a-vis other important considerations, such as what public policies they stand for.

Weiner is still right that universal single-payer health care is the most economically and medically efficient, and most socially just, national system of health care known to man. Kennedy was still inspired and inspirational in his call to dedicate ourselves to the welfare of the nation, and to treat our future together as a shared endeavor calling upon our individual and collective genius and commitment to it. Roosevelt still ushered the nation through a devastating Depression and a horrendous World War in a way which kept our pride and our dignity intact. In comparison, their dalliances and their peccadilloes are of little concern to me.

So next time a politician crashes and burns in a sex scandal, please join me in saying, “wow, man, that’s embarassing. Now get back to work.”

I finally clicked on and opened this little treasure trove of wonders on The Economist website (, and discovered (at the top of a string of interesting posts) a post which suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that foreign participation in American democracy (ala foreign money financing political speech) is only just and right, since American hegemony means that American decisions increasingly directly and indirectly affect the lives of foreign nationals.

As I’ve argued before (, there isn’t really such a vast difference between “empire” and “federalism” as we sometimes pretend. The Tea Partiers, as sometimes happens, are actually right to conflate the two, though wrong in the oversimplistic moral-political judgment they impose on that similarity: Such political consolidation generally yields both aggregate and broadly (if not equitably) distributed benefits that shouldn’t be disregarded. It also involves the institutionalization of uneven distributions of power and influence.

As many people around the world viscerally realize, American hegemony is not really that far removed from American empire, just as Roman hegemony during the late Republic was not all that different from the Roman Empire that followed. And the Southern states that rebelled in defense of slavery were far more accurate than the Northern zeitgeist acknowledges when they (the Confederates) claimed to be heirs to the revolutionaries, fighting against a centralized federal/imperial government telling them what to do.

Of course, the American Revolutionaries themselves weren’t all that anti-imperialistic a mere 13 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, when they were still proud and loyal British citizens. It was their disappointment in the wake of the French and Indian War over a set of British policies that was less favorable to them than they would have liked that quickly eroded their love of empire (the policies in question included the abandonment of the long-standing British policy of “salutary neglect,” sparing the colonies the taxes levied on everyone else in order to give them an opportunity to grow prosperous, which they did; the protection of the Indian tribes in the newly acquired Ohio Valley from colonial expansion; and tolerance of the French language and Catholic religion in the newly acquired Canadian territory).

Our attitudes (like those of our founding fathers) toward political consolidation and centralization are generally situational, less indignant when it is serving our interests, and more indignant when it isn’t. Two ideological cross-currents have entered that stream, one which views any exercise of power over those who are not constituents of that power (i.e., members of the electorate of those who exercise it) as unjust and unacceptable; and one which, bizarrely, sees any consolidation of democratic agency within the nation (over those who elect their representatives) as an affront to liberty, but at least a significant faction of which is not particularly concerned about exercises of power abroad (over those who have no democratic say in the matter), except to the extent that it inconveniences them. (To their credit, another faction of this latter group are true isolationists, but, as I hope I make clear below, though that may be more consistent, it isn’t at all functional).

Both of these ideological cross-currents to some extent confuse the issue, the first by positing that humanity is best served by the eradication of all injustice (something that, if successfully prosecuted, leads to universal destitution), and the second by thinking that humanity is best served by the eradication of all power (other than, for some, that which the nation projects abroad), something that, if successfully prosecuted, leads to social disintegration and a very dramatic contraction of wealth and well-being (whether at the national or global level).

While I am not unaware of the beneficial, if not necessary, role of hegemony in the world, simply because the preferable path of global confederation is too obstructed by a tangled and brutal mess of vested interests to keep pace with the overwhelming need for some degree of global governance, I certainly recognize the injustice of it, and even more so when hegemony is exercised particularly irresponsibly (as it was throughout the first eight years of the new millennium). I’ve written about that demand for global governance (Problems Without Borders ), and about the aristocratic arrogance with which that demand has been met, when it’s been met at all (Lords and Serfs on the Global Manor: Foreign Aid as Noblesse Oblige ). But social organization, perhaps in all forms, involves some distribution and exercise of power (even decentralized normative control does). That’s just a reality we have to deal with, and far preferable to the alternative (a Hobbesian “war of all against all”).

The issue isn’t that the power exists, but rather how it is distributed, how it’s checked and balanced, how it’s contextualized to best serve the interests of those under its umbrella and to protect the vulnerable from abuses. We should want to live in a world capable of organizing across national boundaries to face international challenges and take advantage of international opportunities. But we should also want it to be done, to whatever extent possible, in a way which does not, systemically and consistently, serve the interests of some at the expense of the interests of others. We should want it to be done democratically.

America no longer trusts the world enough to be in the vanguard of its democratization as a world. We have, for some time, exercised our hegemony with disdain for the voice and will of those over whom we are exercising it. This is neither just, nor, in the long run, functional. Maybe it’s time we returned to the dream of Wilson and FDR that we usher in a new age of international organization, and sought ways to give those over whom we reign some small voice in how they are ruled.

I am not, of course, suggesting that we extend rights of direct or equitable participation in American democracy to the world’s population, but rather that we continue what had been evolving for two centuries or more; the gradual forging of a weak but functioning overlay of global governance. From the Concert of Europe in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, through the League of Nations, to the United Nations, the modern developed world (repeatedly abandoned by the United States in the effort) has haltingly and imperfectly tried to forge workable institutions comprising a weak overlay of participatory global governance, each incarnation a little stronger and more functional than the last.

The United Nations is hopelessly flawed, it is true, but so was The United States under the Articles of Confederation. Hopeless flaws invite hopeful reforms, not an abandonment of the challenge the flawed institutions arose to meet. We probably need a new incarnation of this necessary part of the global institutional landscape, one which has more direct subnational representation and less deference to often parasitic national governments that don’t necessarily represent their people’s interests, and more participation of transnational, extranational, and supranational organizations that are key players on the world stage. But America has to continue to aspire to be more than a mere hegemon pursuing its own interests in the global arena; we must aspire to be the “leaders of the free world” we have so long claimed to be, and, as leaders committed to democratic ideals, continue to seek and find ways to include those who are led in the decision-making processes which affect them.

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For those who haven’t figured it out yet, I believe that we live in a fundamentally systemic reality, that increasing both our understanding of the nature of those systems and our application of that understanding to the challenges and opportunities we face, in service to reason and goodwill, is what defines, or should define, the collective human endeavor. If all human beings, or all Americans, or all Coloradans, agreed with this simple proposition today, the enormity of the challenge would still loom before us like a mountain to be scaled, but one we would be able to scale, to our immense benefit. But in a world in which so many people are so irrationally, or self-interestedly, resistent even to getting to this starting point, that mountain recedes beyond moats and fortified walls, hordes of armed and angry sentries attacking those who even gesture toward, much less try to approach, those heights or our potential.

We not only need to analyze the interactions of our social institutions, technologies, and natural systems in the pursuit of an ever-more robust, sustainable, and equitable production and distribution of human welfare, but we also have to analyze the nature of the human obstinance and ignorance that stands between those of us committed to addressing these inherent challenges, and our collective ability to do so. And we need to discern the strategies for circumventing that obstruction.

Politics, which should be the execution of the process we’ve created for acting collectively to our collective benefit, has devolved instead into a shouting match over whether there is any collective benefit to be pursued, and whether the process is one which is meant to bind us together at all. It has been hijacked completely, not by competing views of which analytical tools to employ, or which balance of interests to favor, but rather by those loud and angry mobs that insist we should not engage in the challenge at all, that there is no need, that since (in their view) it was not the will of those who designed our system of self-governance that we govern ourselves, any attempt to do so is an affront to the immutable authority of the ideologues’ misinterpretation of the will of people who died two centuries ago. 

On one level, this is nothing new or exceptional. Politics has long, if not always, been held hostage by the need to trade in raw power, to manipulate masses by mobilizing resources. There have always been those, perhaps always a majority of those actively involved, who have not asked “what best serves the public interest?” but rather only “what best serves my interests?” Those who ask the former have always been trapped in the battle against those who ask the latter, while the latter have been trapped in battle against one another. The form of systems analysis that evolves in this context is the one that addresses itself to political victory rather than to social problem solving. It has thus far been an inherent dilemma.

But there are times and places when this perennial dysfunctionality is eclipsed by a deeper incarnation of its underlying logic, both a response to it and a culmination of that logic. In such circumstances, the political morass is no longer defined by a battle of competing self-interests and commitments to the public welfare. Instead, it is defined by a combination of competing self-interests and a battle between those who fight for the public interest, on the one hand, and an uneasy alliance of self-interested power and misguided ignorance, on the other.

We are in such a condition now, in this country. Despite the erosion in recent decades of social institutions which have served the interests of the many and diminished the distance between their welfare and the welfare of the most privileged few, a robust populist movement exists in America which mistakenly believes that that erosion was to their benefit, that it’s continuation and acceleration serves the greatest good, that it facilitates some mystical function or value that is absolutely inviolable.

The alliance of self-interested power and misguided ignorance is an uneasy one because the populist movement in question (The Tea Party) is not a reliable partner. In its fanatical commitment to a clear, simplistic ideal divorced from analysis, from any cause-and-effect considerations, it threatens not only to undermine the ability of the many to continue to refine our social institutional framework to increase equality and social justice, but also undermines the basic functionality of our political economy altogether, promising to decrease the wealth and welfare of rich and poor alike. The politically self-interested wealthy (those who seek policies which protect their wealth) try to co-opt this movement, but also try to recover their party from its clutches, unable to do either effectively

The most pressing systemic challenge we face in this country today is the one imposed by this mass delusion, one which not only undermines the interests of those who fall prey to it, but also the interests of those who don’t. The great, overwhelming frustration of human existence is the recognition that we are capable of doing so much better, if only we all agreed to, if not join in the effort to do so, at least refrain from obstructing those who do.

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If America ever was an enlightened country, it hasn’t been in my lifetime. Shortly before I was born, we had congressional hearings and blacklistings to destroy lives on the mere insinuation that someone believed in a particular political economic theory. During my childhood, we had the hippy movement that, while more hopeful and positive in outlook, almost immediately became just another pretext for a symbiosis of glassy-eyed and opportunistic human folly (even more so in the case of its progeny, the “New Age” movement). Then we (over-)reacted to such utopianism with the Reagan years, which put into place an astronomical bloating of the national debt (while claiming to represent fiscal conservativism), a renewed (self-delusional) sense of moral superiority vis-a-vis the rest of the world, a cynical promotion of religious fanaticism and cultural tyranny for political strategic purposes, a deregulatory frenzy that we are still paying for in numerous ways, and a set of policies that created more economic polarization in this country than existed in the 19th century “gilded age” of the “Robber Barons.” (As of 2007, 34.6% of net worth and financial wealth, 42.7 % of financial wealth alone, was concentrated into the hands of the wealthiest 1% of the American population. The bottom 80% of the American population were left to divide among them 15% of net worth and wealth combined, and just 7% of financial wealth alone.

After a brief respite under Clinton, we returned to insanity with redoubled enthusiasm. Like a reverse John the Baptist to Bush’s reverse Jesus, Newt Gingrich regaled us with his “Contract With America,” a grandstanding promise to be indifferent to the needs of our most vulnerable citizens. Then came George W. Bush himself, not merely an embarrassing dimwit, but the first president in American history to both engage in and try to advance as our national values the torture of prisoners, the pre-emptive military bombardments of other sovereign nations, the kidnapping of foreign citizens off of foreign streets on the barest wisps of evidence against them (a mere accusation from a neighbor perhaps miffed about some private dispute) and then holding them in secret compounds and torturing them, even after concluding that they’re innocent of any crime, or “rendering” them to other countries that will torture them with even less self-restraint. After eight years of that president who morally and financially bankrupted the country, squandering the economic surplus left by Clinton, catalyzing the worst economic crisis since The Great Depression, we finally, in a rare glimmer of sanity, elected Barack Obama.

But sanity never lasts long in America. Since after a year and a half he has failed to erase the mess that Bush (and his Republican predecessors) created, since though he stopped the hemorrhaging of jobs ( he has not turned around what economists almost universally admit no one can, since he has tried to address the disgraceful fact that the richest country in the world had the most expensive and least efficient health care system in the developed world (the only one that failed to cover a significant portion of the population), since he addressed the lack of financial regulation (insisted upon and advanced by all preceding Republican executives and legislators) that led to the financial sector meltdown in the first place, he is the devil incarnate (born elsewhere, foreign in every way), and we must return to the insanity that preceded him (and is reacting to him).

Yesterday, on “This Week” (, Queen Rania of Jordan very eloquently and moderately captured the corrosive role of religious extremism, both at home (in the United States) and abroad, the multiple folly of opposition to the Muslim cultural center in Manhattan (which stands in opposition to the intolerance and extremism of 9/11, and which in turn is opposed by the parallel intolerance and extremism at home), and the need not to surrender to cynicism and pessimism regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Such a voice of reason! So certain to fall on deaf ears….

After all, she is speaking to the America of Florida pastor Terry Jones, who felt that responding to the hopeful building of a Muslim interfaith center in Manhattan (not at “ground zero”, in fact) by threatening to burn the Koran was the epitome of what it means to be an American ( While many even on the right denounced him (only because they knew it would end up costing American lives), the ironic similarity of such intolerant ethnocentric escalators of hatred to the terrorists whose acts they abhor, and the dissimilarity to those who preach tolerance rather than interethnic hatred, is lost on them.

The Republican “Pledge to America”, which even conservative economists admit will further increase the deficit (, is being aggressively and successfully marketed by the right as fiscal responsibility which no rational person could oppose (though virtually all rational people oppose it). And it imposes debt on future generations only to benefit the wealthiest Americans, rather than those who need assistance, or to improve our human or material infrastructure. We should incur debt only as an investment in the future, not as a redistribution of wealth, across generations, to the uber-wealthy of today.

At South Jeffco’s Summerset Festival the weekend before last, for instance, I had numerous encounters which drove home the zeitgeist. One pleasant young woman told me she was a Republican, and responded to my suggestion that we should all agree to be reasonable people of goodwill and build on that by saying, “yes, just look at health care reform, that ruined the best health care system in the world.” Was she referring to the same health care system that, by every statistical measure, underperformed the systems of every other developed nation on Earth, and did so at far greater expense, while managing to cover a smaller percentage of the population than any other developed nation’s health care system? And another woman insisted that illegal immigrants never pay taxes and are purely a sap on our economy, though many pay taxes, often for services they can never collect on, and by all economic analyses are either an economic wash or a slight benefit nationally. Truth is the first casualty of war, and there is currently a war being waged on truth itself in America.

Examples abound. There are the Colorado ballot initiatives, 60, 61, and 101, that even fiscally conservative Republican politicians in Colorado oppose (, but that have a chance of passing, and are defended by earnest pseudo-economic arguments such as those presented by Debbie Schum in yesterdays Denver Post ( This is what happens when insanity is cultivated, in the hope of it being harnessed for political gain. Those who cultivate it eventually lose control of it, and it is the insanity unleashed that prevails.

As I’ve often said, there are legitimate debates to be had, legitimate disputes based on the differing conclusions of sound reasoning applied to reliable data in service to mutual goodwill. But we’re not having those debates. Instead, public discourse and the political process that simultaneously tracks and exploits it, have been hijacked by the need to incessantly debunk the unsound reasoning, fabricated facts, and fundamental inhumanity of what is perhaps the most powerful social movement in America today. We are too busy fighting the sheer human folly incarnate among us to get to the legitimate debates, and the hard, information-intensive work of governing ourselves wisely and effectively.

I have long noted that, in many ways, America is Ancient Rome to Europe’s Ancient Greece, the more brutish inheritor of a cultural, economic, and political fluorescence. Unlike Rome, however, which coveted Greek slaves to tutor their children, America has come to disparage rather than respect the still more civilized originators of modernity across the Atlantic. We look at countries that have almost completely eliminated poverty, have universal health care, low infant mortality, a far more successful and higher functioning public education system, greater social mobility, and higher rates of self-reported happiness, and many among us dismiss them as “socialist” countries, which we arbitrarily claim, by definition, must be failures. (As one individual quoted in yesterday’s Denver Post said, health care reform is “a communist, socialist scheme. All the other countries that have tried this, they’re billions in debt, and they admit this doesn’t work” (

The western European countries have their defects, to be sure, and America has done better than them on some dimensions, but this absolute rejection of the possibility that we have something to learn from others, who have fared better than us on numerous dimensions, is the epitome of combined arrogance and ignorance, that unholy marriage that dooms any individual or social entity to self-destructive irrelevance. We are a country very much like the one we were when Elmer Gantry was written a century ago, a country of small-minded yahoos and those that exploit them, with the marginalized voices of sincere and well-informed analysts shouting desperately across the sound-proofed barrier that has been erected against us.

But the question remains: How do we defeat this persistent, deeply embedded insanity that has come to define us as a people? In a conversation with Adam Schrager (Colorado’s pre-eminent political broadcast journalist) last week, we both voiced our disgust that politics has become far too much about the acquisition of power, and far too little about the challenge of devising intelligent public policies. But I shared with him this thought: Politics is almost inevitably hostage to an evolutionary logic. That which works (in the competition of policies and candidates) is that which is reproduced, while that which doesn’t work is abandoned. As a result, politics has devolved into a competition of marketing strategies and raising the funds necessary to their effectiveness. It isn’t enough to bemoan this fact, because any attempt to reject it, unless embracing an alternative simultaneously less cynical and more effective (which, as much as we’d like to be the case, almost never is), is doomed to failure, and thus obsolescence.

The ironic challenge we face, then, is how to use what works to create a context in which it is no longer what works, or no longer an option. For, while extraordinary acts of self-sacrifice for the public good by political leaders are both admirable and meaningful, they are not a sustainable strategy. Ralph Carr (Adam Schrager’s favorite example), the Republican governor of Colorado during WWII, who refused to comply with Japanese interment, despite such refusal being political suicide, might be a great example to follow, but if universally followed by all reasonable people of goodwill in all instances, would succeed only in ensuring that only irrational people of ill-will ever remain in office once confronted with the choice to do what’s right or do what’s politically expedient. The somewhat empty admonition that elected officials (like the rest of us) should always do what’s right rather than what’s in their own interests does not get us very far, both because of human nature (one’s own interests are going to remain a powerful incentive, whether we like it or not), and because of the evolutionary logic of politics (to paraphrase a famous quote from Henry Kissinger, in politics, always doing what’s right rather than what’s politically expedient or strategically superior merely cedes the world to the less scrupulous).

We can afford neither to be “above politics,” nor to surrender completely to its dysfunctional logic. But here is the limit of my own cynicism: We most certainly can’t afford to make ourselves morally indistinguishable from those we oppose. We must find successful strategies, in pursuit of raw political power, but by finding resonance between our own better angels and those of the electorate, rather than bringing both us and them down by resorting to the same old political cynicism as a first rather than last resort.

People criticize Obama for having tried to take the political high road rather than jamming through whatever we could any way that we could, but I do not. He is looking at a longer-term agenda, and a deeper necessity, than his critics are. There is a balance to be struck between what reality demands of us, and what our ideals demand of us, and we must always subordinate the former to the latter in the final analysis. Health care reform may have been critically important to our collective welfare, but there are deeper and more essential reforms that should not be sacrificed in every instance to the exigencies of the moment. We cannot defeat our own ignorance by surrendering to a political strategic system that exploits and cultivates it.