Who Decides?

Who decides what we eat, drink, and how to go about being merry? Societies range from those that rely heavily on government determination to those that leave most choices to individuals. At one end of the spectrum, the government determines what it is healthy or safe for us to consume and do and at the other end each person freely makes their own decisions about most aspects of their life.  Neither of these extremes is absolute, of course. At the freedom end we are not free to violate the freedom of others (steal their property, assault their bodies, etc.).  At the cradle-to-the-grave -government-protection end we safely eat, drink, and enjoy the activities the government allows us to.

America flourished economically and culturally because we were largely free to make our own decisions. Government largely enforced property rights and public safety and provided information on which we could make better informed private choices. We innovated and took calculated risks with the deployment of our ideas and flourished.

In recent decades the government has increasingly restricted our choices to what it determined was good or safe.  The superiority of our private choices depends on how well informed and responsible we are. While we and the government may both think we are motivated to act in our personal best interest, the incentive to get it right is stronger for the individual actor.  And incentives always matter.

Take but one example—the “War on Drugs.”  Despite this war, 11,712 people died from drug overdoses in 2000 rising in two decades to 83,558 in 2020 (from 6,190 to 64,183 for opioids). “Drug overdose deaths-fentanyl-Greenville NC” I believe, with many others, that ending the drug war (legalizing the purchase and consumption of them) and instead educating the public about their effects (honest, fact-based information) would reduce such deaths.

The growing, selling and consuming of Cannabis is now legal in 21 states. When I gave into the social pressure in college to take a drag as a joint was passed around, I learned that it makes me less social. Wine was my better option. Not only do I enjoy wine, but I appreciate its socializing properties.  So, it has probably been 50 years since I have smoked marijuana. Its not clear whether its legalization along with better information and education on its pros and cons will increase or decrease or leave unchanged its consumption. The destructive prohibition of alcohol and the organized crime syndicates that grew up to circumvent it and its subsequent repeal did not eliminate the damage that alcoholism visited on some people.  However, Americans have generally benefited from the reliance on education and persuasion rather than government coercion.  Rather than crime syndicates to distribute illegal booze, we have AA and health facilities to help those who have not been able to resist overusing it.

Challenging and sensitive examples concern racial, sexual and religious discrimination.  The Civil Rights Law of 1964 attempted to address racial discrimination but in some ways overreached. The case of same sex marriage and the cake baker come to mind. We are still struggling to find the best balance between potentially conflicting individual rights.  I fail to see how the refusal of a baker to cook for the marriage of two men (which violates his religious beliefs), interferes with their right and ability to marry —an arrangement society has always seen as beneficial and important (and thus not to be denied to homosexuals).

The case of affirmative action also provides a challenging example of addressing a problem with social attitudes vs coercion. The Supreme Court decided in 1978 that the prohibition against racial discrimination could be violated for a temporary period in the interest of greater racial diversity and balance.  Harvard University chose to discriminate against Asian students, who would have been overrepresented if admitted on the basis of academic merit only, in order to admit a larger number of African Americans.  Asian students have challenged Harvard’s policy and the Supreme Court is expected to rule next year in “STUDENTS FOR FAIR ADMISSIONS, INC., Petitioner, v. PRESIDENT & FELLOWS OF HARVARD COLLEGE, Respondent” on the question “Should this Court overrule Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003), and hold that institutions of higher education cannot use race as a factor in admissions?”

I believe that a public discussion of the benefits of diversity to schools and other institutions as well its contribution toward overcoming earlier and existing negative discrimination against African Americans is the more promising and flexible approach to this issue than government coercion. I find it interesting that many federal court judges take race into account in hiring their clerks.  “Appeals court judges consider race of their clerks”  This is also an interesting perspective: “How liberals lost their way on affirmative action”

The times are changing

In 1978 China began to free up and open its economy to move its economic policies toward ours. Although the Communist Party of China remained in complete control of the political domain, the growth in China’s economy was dramatic. “According to the World Bank, more than 850 million Chinese people have been lifted out of extreme poverty; China’s poverty rate fell from 88 percent in 1981 to 0.7 percent in 2015, as measured by the percentage of people living on the equivalent of US$1.90 or less per day in 2011 purchasing price parity terms.” “Poverty in China”

As I wrote 11 years ago: “Chinese people strike me as more like us than most any other people (including Europeans) I have met. And who do I mean by “us?” I don’t mean just Anglo Saxons like myself. I mean the hard working, innovative, entrepreneur types who are creating most of the wealth in this country like Google founders, Larry Page (American born Jew) and Sergey Brin (Russian born Jew), or Steve Jobs, who was born in San Francisco to a Syrian father and German-American mother, as well as many Anglo Saxons like myself.” ‘My G20 trip to China”

Sadly, Xi Jinping has been reversing this free market trend with very damaging results to economic growth and personal privacy and freedom in China.  

Sadder still, the United States has reversed direction since 9/11 as well, though more slowly. Not only has our government increasingly intruded into our privacy (it didn’t end with Edward Snowden’s revelations:  “Civil rights-Brennan-domestic terror-white supremacy”), but it has flooded the economy with excessive regulations, increasing trade restrictions and even the launch of industrial policies and subsidies that violate WTO rules. “US chip war to hit allies as hard as it does China”   “Competing with China” Our championing of the rule of law is growing increasingly hollow. Asset forfeiture provides but one example: Coats on the abuse of civil forfeiture”  and George Will on civil forfeiture nightmare”

How can this be? Why do we seem to want to be more like China? Many of today’s voters had not been born when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. We must make the case for free markets and limited government again and again, but in a way that is understood by, and appeals to the concerns and sensitivities of, generations X and Z and our future children.   “Global protests-democracy-autocracy”

Affirmative Action

Like most Americans I believe that our laws should be color blind. That means that race should not be a factor in who to hire or who to admit to college. But put aside what is required by the law for a moment and ask: what is good admission policy for a university? What we consider “good policy” itself depends on the purpose or objective of the policy.

Let me focus on private universities and colleges that are not benefiting from taxpayer (our) money, if there are any, who are thus free to determine what they consider “good policy.” Such universities are likely to want to provide the best educational experience for their students possible.  Having smart, motivated students is an important component of an enriching intellectually stimulating environment.  Diversity of ideas, personalities, and ethnic backgrounds is also a good component of such an environment.

Basing student admissions solely on SAT scores or such metrics will, unfortunately, over-represent Asians and underrepresent blacks. The goal would not necessarily be exact proportionality of the share of these groups in the population (U.S. population or global population??), but it might well be sensible given the desire for diversity, to shade admissions a bit toward more blacks and fewer Asians. Enlightened university admissions officers might well operate this way. Catholic and Hebrew schools have a different purpose, but it is expressed more on the side of applicants than admissions officers. My point is that there can be a good and proper place for such judgements in a “good” society.

“In 2003, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, writing the majority opinion upholding affirmative action in Grutter v. Bollinger, expressed the hope that race-conscious admissions would be unnecessary 25 years hence.”  “Harvard UNC affirmative action admissions before Supreme Court”  Because of earlier discrimination against blacks, in part through inferior elementary and secondary education, it was accepted as OK to temporarily discriminate modestly in favor of blacks when admitting students to a college or university. Such “affirmative action” has increased black college enrollment considerably. “Affirmative action-supreme court cases”

But 40 years of affirmative action (the waving of equal treatment under the law) is stretching the notion of temporary and the SC is likely to end it. In many respects it is about time. However, it also illustrates that the rigidity of a legal remedy in place of more nuanced judgement can be second best. This is a dilemma.

While enjoying an intellectually stimulating time in college may help attract good students, the real test of a college’s success is the extent to which the experience promotes a richer (in all senses) life after graduation. This requires admitting students who will benefit most from what the college offers, whatever their starting point. It requires looking deeper than such indicators as SAT scores. Prof. Roland Fryer’s experience suggests possible approaches. “Affirmative action-Supreme Court and college admissions”

As he often does, George Will confronts us with the frequent contradictions in our thinking on such tricky issues: “College racial discrimination and affirmative action”

Review of Thomas Sowell’s “Black Rednecks and White Liberals”

Thomas Sowell, a prolific and highly respected economist, wrote Black Rednecks and White Liberals in 2005, but I have only recently encountered and read it.  I wish I had read it earlier, but better late than never. The book is a collection of six essays on the role and dominance of culture over race in the experience of black Americans and other racial groups (Germans, Lebanese, Chinese, Jews, and other middlemen minorities). Like most good U of Chicago economists, he builds his arguments empirically. Digesting the book’s rich collection of data is worth the read.

Sowell documents that most slaves, who have existed from almost the beginning of humanity, have not been black, nor has being a slave, as unacceptable as it is in the modern world, necessarily impeded the futures of slaves once freed. Most interestingly, Sowell argues that the self-destructive behavior of America’s black ghetto culture is not genetic but rather the learned bad habits of the “Cracker culture” of the North Britons, Welsh, and Highland and Ulster Scots who immigrated to the American South and were its dominant slave owners. Sowell argues that the income and educational gaps between white and black Americans reflect the perpetuation by “ghetto” blacks of this culture and its remedy must come from blacks.

A review of the book by Neil Shenvi states that:

“Sowell’s first essay, which shares the book’s title, begins with this provocative quote:

‘These people are creating a terrible problem in our cities. They can’t or won’t hold a job, they flout the law constantly and neglect their children, they drink too much and their moral standards would shame an alley cat. For some reason or other, they absolutely refuse to accommodate themselves to any kind of decent, civilized life.

“Sowell continues: ‘This was said in 1956 in Indianapolis, not about blacks or other minorities, but about poor whites from the South… A 1951 survey in Detroit found that white Southerners living there were considered ‘undesirable’ by 21 percent of those surveyed, compared to 13 percent who ranked blacks the same way’.

“Sowell’s main thesis in this essay is that what we know today as ‘black culture’ is actually ‘white redneck culture’ or ‘cracker culture’ which ‘originated not in the South but in those parts of the British Isles from which white Southerners came. That culture long ago died out where it originated in Britain, while surviving in the American South. Then it largely died out among both white and black Southerners, while still surviving today in the poorest and worst of the urban black ghettos.’”

Shenvi’s review notes that: “[t]he 1970 census showed that black West Indian families in the New York metropolitan area had 28 percent higher incomes than the families of American blacks. The incomes of second-generation West Indian families living in the same area exceeded that of black families by 58 percent. Neither race or racism can explain such differences. Nor can slavery, since native-born blacks and West Indian blacks both had a history of slavery.”  “A review of Sowell’s Black Rednecks and White Liberals

Sowell’s chapter on “Black Education: Achievements, Myths, and Tragedies” makes the exact same points and criticism of “modern” education made by my mother who was an elementary school teacher in the 1970s and 80s who believed in teaching basic skills and knowledge to a well-disciplined class. Any student who bullied a fellow student only had a chance to do it once while under the supervision of my mother’s strict disciplinary style. At her request she was assigned to classes with behavior problems and by the end of the year they loved her (as did I).

William Raspberry (1935-2012), one of my favorite Washington Post columnists, who like Sowell was black, wrote in a review of Black Rednecks… “[o]ne thing seems beyond dispute: Maybe we haven’t laid racism to rest, but we have reached the point where what we [i.e., blacks] do matters more than what is done to us. That’s great, good news.”

What is appropriate to teach our kids?

Obviously, the knowledge and skills taught to kids should be appropriate to their age. At whatever age kids can meaningfully absorb the history and message of religions, for example (don’t ask me what age that is), the real question is what they should be taught about them. Given our constitutional separation of Church and State and our commitment to individual choice and the enriching benefits of a multiethnic population, public schools can not “teach Christianity”. But it is highly desirable to teach students about Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and the other major religions—their histories and beliefs. Parents have a right to be satisfied that what is taught fairly represents their religion.

At an appropriate age kids need to learn about races—about why some kids in the room are black, white, brown, and yellow. At an appropriate, presumably older age, they need to learn the history of these races and especially slavery as it is particularly relevant in America, as are Chinese rail road workers and the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII.

At appropriate ages kids also need to learn about how their bodies function and how to keep them healthy. As they approach puberty, they will want to know all about what is going on in their bodies. If they are not given this information in the classroom, they will seek it elsewhere. Current controversies over teaching information about sexuality and sexual functions to kids at the age needing and wanting such information and over the availability of affinity clubs for young teenagers to discusses these pressing questions, reflects, in my view, two serious mistakes in confronting this issue. The first is to overlook or deny that kids will seek out what ever information they can about every aspect of sex whether presented in the classroom or not. The second serious mistake is the claim that teaching about homosexuality and providing clubs in which kids can discuss their questions about it with their piers will recruit heterosexual students to join up with the gays as if being gay is so desirable. We cannot chose our sexual orientation.

I want to focus on the second of these. We are born with our sexual attractions. We are not and cannot be recruited from it to its opposite. The survival of the species requires that most people are heterosexual and happy to procreate and so overwhelmingly most people are heterosexual. Those who are not are acutely aware that their attractions are not the norm. As they attempt to establish their goals for their lives, most homosexuals try to hide from, or deny to, themselves that they are different. Most would rather not be. But they cannot change the facts. Their goal should be to accept the facts and carry on building the most fulfilling lives possible. This is much easier today than earlier because of honest and factual classroom information and public role models of successful gay men and lesbian women.

Sixty-five years ago as I struggled to sort out my own attractions (yes I know that that was a rather long time ago and a different world) I did not know any, or of any, gay people as models or better still to talk to. There was no Will and Grace, or Peter Buttigieg, or Peter Thiel, or Lily Tomlin. I had only heard of child molesters—bad people who were run out of town. I hated what I felt. It threatened to destroy the life I hoped to have. So I buried it away for many year at the cost of considerable internal pain. What a relief it would have been to have learn in class that some people are just that way and can have otherwise normal lives.

Thus, it is quite distressing to me that some poorly informed parents are rising up against such instruction. While I assume that they mean well, I see their actions as child abuse. They mistakenly believe that homosexuality is a choice. They understandably don’t want their child to make that choice. But it is not a choice. We often say that God made us homosexual, and we chose to be gay.

All children need the facts about the various urges god gave us and help with their struggle to accept their own sexual orientation and to fit in with the rest of society. Clubs at which they can socialize and feel comfortable and discuss the fact of their homosexuality can be a helpful part of their development. Despite the enormous progress in public understanding, ignorance persists in some quarters on which the Washington Post gives an interesting report:

Flyers at school advertising Safe Place club meetings, “set off a wave of parent anger and rumors that Safe Place club advisers including Melissa Panico, a teacher who has LGBTQ children, would “indoctrinate” students.

“Spurred by these concerns, legislatures in at least 19 states have passed or are considering laws that bar discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity for younger children while limiting teaching on those topics for older students….

 “’Safe Space’ signs had to come down. The posters were ‘political in nature,’ he wrote, and might cause ‘disruption to the learning environment.’ The signs could run afoul of two legal considerations, he added: ‘One, will what is posted or worn be seen as indoctrinating our students to believe or think in a certain way. Two, would we allow anything that represents the opposite viewpoint?’” It is hard to believe that these were the words of an adult educator.  “Gay-straight alliance-indoctrination-school club”

Progress has been made but we still have a ways to go:

“When Sen. Barry Goldwater, dubbed “Mr. Conservative,” learned that his grandson and grandniece were gay, he worked for new laws that would protect their civil rights. When Newt Gingrich became speaker of the House, and his lesbian half-sister, Candace, became a gay activist, he took a more neutral stance. “It’s a free country,” he told the press. State Sen. William “Pete” Knight has been estranged from his son since learning four years ago he is gay.

“And now, Dick and Lynne Cheney are faced with their decision, how to handle in public what is essentially a private matter: the sexual orientation of their daughter, Mary.”  “The Cheney’s”

The good and evil in us all

Listening to political dialog in the U.S. has become very painful and disheartening because there is no dialog. The Republicans and Democrats simply hurdle nasty insults at each other. They are enemies rather than fellow citizens with different views. Serious policy issues and challenges do not receive the serious debate they need. The atmosphere is ugly.

Russia’s unjustified and increasingly barbaric attacks on Ukraine is another example of the worst in mankind.  Following four weeks of Russian attacks on Mariupol, Bucha, and other cities the destruction of lives and property is clearly visible. While it may take a while to sort out the truth of who did what, “President Biden on Monday joined the chorus of world leaders who have said reports of mass killings in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha constituted a ‘war crime,’ vowing to hold Russian President Vladimir Putin ‘accountable’ for the apparent atrocities in Ukraine.” “Bucha Biden sanctions Russia Ukraine”  However, it is natural, and appropriate, that we honor the bravery of Ukrainians defending their homeland and despise the savagery of the Russians invading it.

These understandable reactions do not excuse our damaging loss of our ability to differentiate among people, judging each other individually. Removing Russian performers from western stages may seem a childish reaction–OK it is a childish reaction–but it reveals a dangerous predisposition of caveman behavior. What are we to make of the removal of compositions of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky from current orchestral programs? He has been dead for more than a hundred years. Or as tweeted by Edward Luttwak: “The U of Milano cancels Dostoevsky course; Poland cancels Mussorgsky, Shostakovich & Stravinsky…. Actual thought is needed.”

Not all Russians living in Russia disapprove of their country’s war in Ukraine (hearing only official Russian propaganda) but many do according to those now leaving Russia in fear or disgust. We are told that many of the young Russian soldiers sent into Ukraine didn’t know why they were there and are not happy fighting their Ukrainian cousins.

Seeing such behavior has been very disheartening.

But man left the caves with admirable instincts as well. Helping their fellow man in need contributed to their own survival as well. The incredible welcome of 4 million Ukrainians in Europe in one month is breathtakingly heartwarming. Though I am embarrassed that the admission of Afghan and other war refugees has not been as easy or welcoming. My friend Tom Palmer continues to help fleeing Ukrainians relocate to Poland as do many others. A recent J Street webinar interview of Naomi Steinberg from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society about their work assisting Ukrainian immigrants was equally heartwarming. She noted that in earlier days HIAS helped Jews flying from persecution. Today, she said: “We are helping refugees, not because theyare Jewish but because we are Jewish.”

The fear and loathing of “others” and the desire to help those in need are both impulses that helped cavemen survive. But we no longer live in caves and our survival and flourishing requires that we tame the first instinct and encourage the second one.

What to do with Social Media?

Social media is changing how we get news and debate public issues. How should its contents be regulated and by whom? The answer should reflect the fundamental importance of free and open speech for forming broadly supported public policies and social attitudes.

The quality of public discussion in the United States today has deteriorated. There are even some who wish to end debate on some issues altogether (the cancel culture). Take two recent examples:

In reaction to Georgia’s new Voting Rights Act President Biden said: “Parts of our country are backsliding into the days of Jim Crow, passing laws that harken back to the era of poll taxes — when Black people were made to guess how many beans, how many jelly beans, in a jar or count the number of bubbles in a bar of soap before they could cast their ballot.” “Biden US backsliding-Jim Crow”

Representative Maxine Waters traveled to Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, to join crowds protesting the police shooting of Duante Wright. On that occasion, “A reporter then asked, if Chauvin isn’t convicted on all charges, “What should protesters do?”

“Well, we gotta stay on the street,” Waters said. “And we’ve got to get more active. We’ve got to get more confrontational. We’ve got to make sure that they know that we mean business.”

For her complete comments see: “In her own words-Maxine Waters”

In response to Water’s words Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted:

_________________________________  

@RepMaxineWaters you don’t live in Minnesota.

You crossed state lines and incited riots, violence against police, shootings at the MN NG, and threatened a jury as a sitting US Congresswoman.@SpeakerPelosi surely you will expel this criminal from Congress and uphold the law! pic.twitter.com/twH52VwFTP

— Marjorie Taylor Greene 🇺🇸 (@mtgreenee) April 19, 2021

_________________________________ 

“Marjorie Taylor Greene says Maxine Waters incited riots calls for her expulsion from congress”

‘Maxine Waters-Kevin McCarthy Minnesota police”

President Biden’s and Representative Greene’s comments both earn four Pinocchios. Senator Ted Cruz’s comments about Waters’ statement were just as bad. But then we are used to politicians lying to us, especially in the heat of campaigns. However, they do not contribute to the constructive dialog needed over these and other pressing public issues.  

With regard to Georgia’s new Voting Law, assessments are mixed. For example: “Rather than allowing voters to request ballots six months from Election Day, the new law says voters can start requesting ballots 78 days out; counties can begin sending ballots to voters just 29 days before Election Day, rather than the previous 49 days.” “Georgia voting law explained”

This hardly strikes me as voter suppression. I grew up in Bakersfield California and our voting precinct voted in our garage. As a kid I was fascinated by it all (though not thrilled with having to clean the garage for the occasion). There was no such thing as early voting except for absentee ballets by military service men and women. No drop boxes or any of that stuff. You came to our garage on election day or you didn’t vote. But there is surely a place for serious pros and cons of each provision of the law. As the press has been overwhelmingly (almost hysterically) negative (despite Georgia’s Governor and Secretary of State’s refusal to yield to Trump’s pressure to overturn his election defeat in Georgia) here is a more measured defense of the new law: “Exclusive 21 black leaders defend Georgia voting law as proper honest reform”

The real question is why were changes in Georgia’s voting law needed in the first place? What weaknesses were being addressed? Even with this new law, Georgia’s law is more permissive than those of Biden’s Delaware. In a negative, but more balanced assessment, Derek Thompson stated that:  “Georgia’s voting rights have long been more accommodating than those of deep-blue states including not only Delaware, but also Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York.” “Georgia voting rights fiasco”

Maxine Waters didn’t, and often doesn’t, use the best judgement in where, when and what she said, but she didn’t say anything that she should not be allowed to say whether you agree with her or not.  Referring to Reps. Waters and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich, Newt Gingrich wrote that:

“House Democrats have produced two radical demagogues whose policies would endanger the lives of innocent Americans, lead to the breakdown of society, and undermine the U.S. Constitution.”  “Repudiate Tlaib and Waters promote mob rule Newt Gingrich” This is precisely the sort of name calling that impedes the serious dialogue over concrete issues and proposals that we so badly need. Demonizing opponents–turning opponents into enemies–is a tactic of the weak (think Vladimir Putin).

Rep Waters’ charge that protesters should get more confrontational did not strike me as an incitement to violence anymore (and rather less) than former President Trump’s call for his assembled supporters on January 6 to march to the Capital and “fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” The brief submitted by Trump’s lawyers for his impeachment trail stated the “his call for the crowd to ‘fight like hell,’ was not meant to be taken literally.” OK, then perhaps he should keep it to himself. This reminds me of my favorite “apology” for lying about voter fraud that kept Trump from remaining in the White House. In response to a liable suit by the voting software company Dominion Voting Systems,  Sidney Powell stated in court that “’no reasonable person would conclude’ that her accusations of Dominion being part of an election-rigging scheme with ties to Venezuela ‘were truly statements of fact.’” “Sidney Powell-Dominion-No reasonable person”  Sadly I know some very fine people who did (or do) believe her nonsense.

But what if Biden’s, Trump’s, Waters’ and Greene’s comments were suppressed–erased–rather than challenged? These were opinions, however off the mark, rather than statements of fact. What if someone (named Trump) claims that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. and thus not eligible to run for President (despite irrefutable evidence to the contrary)? I will spare you the very long list of such lies. And, to finally get to my real topic, what should social media do about it?  

Unlike newspapers and magazines, which are responsible for the accuracy of their content, Facebook and Twitter and Tiktok (I am too old to be current with all of the other newer platforms) “merely” provide the vehicle by which its users (you and me) distribute our content. The government does have laws that limit speech.  “Categories of speech that are given lesser or no protection by the First Amendment (and therefore may be restricted) include obscenity, fraud, child pornography, speech integral to illegal conduct, speech that incites imminent lawless action, speech that violates intellectual property law, true threats….and defamation that causes harm to reputation….”  “United States free speech exceptions”. What is not legally allowed generally, should not be allowed on social media. But in my opinion, those are the only restrictions that should be allowed in the law.  The last thing we want is Nancy Pelosi or Ten Cruz deciding what is allowed and not allowed on Twitter.

In short, beyond speech that is already restricted by law, the government should leave social media free to set their own policies for what they permit on their platforms.  But what should those policies be? In my opinion, all opinions should be allowed, even those, and especially those, that the platform operators consider wrong or repugnant. Bad policy prescriptions should best be countered by counter arguments not by censorship. It is not possible to over emphasize the benefit to America of free and open debate. Bad ideas are best countered and refuted by good ideas.  You are not likely to find a better statement of these views and a better defense of free speech than in Jonathan Rauch’s Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought.

But what about clearly fake news? Unfortunately, the distinction between fact and opinion is not always 100 percent clear. Tweeter should not have removed Donald Trump’s pages, though full of lies. Facebook should not have removed QAnon’s totally ridiculous conspiracy claims to take another extreme example. Many far less controversial posts have been removed as well for very unclear reasons. Facebook and other social media are working diligently to strike the right balance but are not there yet in my opinion. When Facebook or other social media platforms have good reason to doubt facts posted on their platforms, rather than remove (censure) them it would be better for Facebook to attach its warning and perhaps a link to more reliable information.

If Facebook (or any other platform) chooses to forbid hate speech, it would be better to rely on user complaints than its AI algorithm to determine what is hate speech. In an amusing, but not so amusing, example of the pitfalls of reliance on programmatic detection of disallowed speech, Facebook removed a post of a section of the Declaration of Independence because of its “nasty” reference to American Indians.  “Facebook censored a post for hate speech-it was the Declaration of Independence”

It is often argued that given the realities of network externalities (everyone wants to be where everyone else is), Facebook and Twitter are virtual monopolies and that this justifies more intrusive government regulation.  But the competition has expanded to include at the top of the list: YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, Twitter, and Pinterest. Even Trump plans to launch his own platform. Facebook and the other popular platforms must ultimately please their users or they will be replaced even if network externalities are hard to overcome. It has happened before and can happen again. Government intervention to regulate platform content beyond the restrictions already in the law would be contrary to our traditional freedom of speech and potentially dangerous.

There are measures that the government might take to make competition easier. When phone companies were required to give ownership of phone numbers to the subscriber, making them easily portable from one phone company to another, competition received an important boost. Something similar might be done with social media data of users (e.g., username, friends, pictures and posts).

A much more challenging area concerns social media algorithms for directing users to others with similar interests (or beliefs) in order to better target the advertising that pays for it all. If users only see or hear the views of the likeminded, unhealthy ego chambers can be created and promulgated. Agreeing on constructive approaches to dealing with this danger will require more public discussion.

Summary: Demonizing political opponents is bad for democracy. Opponents are not enemies. There needs to be enough common ground for most of us to stand on if we are to remain a viable country. Free speech has been a very important feature of America and its flourishing. It is best to protect free speech and counter misinformation and bad ideas with rebuttal and better ideas. No opinion should be censured. Social media should flag questionable information rather than remove.

A liberal dad complained about the one-sided liberal (in the American rather than classical sense) education his children had received in college because, he said, “they are completely unable to defend what they believe.”

Hate Crimes

“The shooting deaths of eight people at Asian-run spas in Georgia this week triggered a vigorous national debate Thursday over whether the mass killing amounted to a hate crime.” “Georgia hate crime law-Atlanta shooting”  These deaths (and recent attacks on Asians more generally) raise several issues that I would like to explore. 1. What is the point of hate crime laws?  The poor ladies killed in this attack could care less what motivated Robert Aaron Long, the 21 year old shooter. 2. Whose fault is it? Let’s start with the shooter (and other attackers), please. 3. What should we do about it (beyond locking the shooter, and other attackers, up)?

What is the point of hate crime laws?

“Georgia State Rep. Chuck Efstration, a Republican who helped shepherd [Georgia’s Hate Crime] bill into law, said it was intended to allow for especially stiff penalties for crimes in which “the perpetrator’s prejudices and biases are attacks not only on the victims but on all of society.  Thank goodness law enforcement will have the ability to charge this as a hate crime if the facts support that,”   [op cit]

Georgia State University law professor Jessica Gabel Cino noted that: “The majority of the victims are women, and they are Asian. Those are two protected statuses.” And what if they hadn’t been?

Traditional laws do differentiate between first, second, and third degree murders, but if you plan to and succeed in killing someone, it didn’t traditionally matter whether you loved or hated the victim. I can understand why such information might be useful in exploring approaches to mitigating the risk of such future murders, but I don’t see its relevant to the guilt and punishment of the murderer. I do not support capital punishment, but Mr. Long should surely be put away for the rest of his pathetic life whatever motivated his killing spree.

According to Mr. Long, “he was on a mission… to stem his addiction to sex. The spas were ‘a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.’”  “What happened-Atlanta shooting”

In determining the length of a sentence, courts do pay some attention to the motive for a crime as well as the crime itself but a special category of “hate crimes” has always seemed troubling and unnecessary to me.

Whose fault is it?

In a free society of responsible citizens, we must never forget that in the first instance the fault for a crime rests with the criminal. But it is fair to ask what motivated the criminal. While Mr. Long’s horrible crimes do not appear to be motived by the hatred of Asian’s, there has definitely been an increase in verbal and physical attacks on Asians over the past year. Much of the press has been quite eager to point to the hate filled and divisive statements against China by former President Trump. While he is certainly guilty of poisoning public discourse on China, immigration, Muslims and related topics, it is an odd place to look first.

Animosity toward Asians, and Chinese in particular, arises in the first instance from the behavior of China (shorthand for the government of China — synonymous with the Communist Party of China). In fact, unfavorable attitudes toward China have skyrocketed around the globe over the last three to four years. “For our enemies we have shotguns explaining Chinas new assertiveness” Public attitudes toward China are lower in Australia and the U.K., for example, than in the U.S. and fell sharply well before the Covid-19 pandemic.  “China global reputation coronavirus”  Attitudes toward China began to deteriorate in the face of Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, violations of the one country, two systems agreement for Hong Kong, theft of intellectual property from the West, and treatment of the Uighurs in the Xinjiang region, to name a few. China’s suppression of information on the virus producing covid-19 pales in comparison to its bad behavior in other areas.

What should we do about it?

The world that objects to China’s behavior needs to stand together in pointing it out. Former President Trump’s stand-alone, bilateral approach was a failure. But it is very important when the U.S. and other governments criticize China to clearly differentiate the government of China from the Chinese people, whether citizens of China or the U.S. or elsewhere. It is the Chinese government–the Communist Party of China–that is misbehaving.

The distinction between a government and its people is important more generally. For example, those who criticize the misbehavior of the Israeli government toward the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, are sometimes mistakenly accused of anti-Semitism–i.e., of being against the Jewish people. It is likely that many are reluctant to criticize the Israeli government for fear of being accused of anti-Semitism. As the Biden administration joins with other countries to criticize the misbehavior of the Chinese government, it must, and it is, clearly distinguishing the Chinese government from the Chinese people. And we, each one of us, must speak out at the sight of rude or inappropriate behavior toward Asians, or anyone else. ALL LIVES MATTER.

Shifting Gears: The Way Forward

The Trump administration accomplished many good things and many bad things (especially in the trade and foreign policy areas). Trump himself belongs in jail in my opinion. Hopefully, with the new Biden administration we can turn our attention to policy issues and stop calling our policy opponents nasty names. We must state the positive case for why our policy views are more appropriate–why they are better for our country. These are the sorts of public debates that we have been missing for a while and to which we should return.

One of our most fundamental principles is America’s commitment to equal treatment under the law for everyone regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, or preferred hair style. Equal treatment is extended to everyone whether they or their ancestors came from Asia, Europe, Africa or Ireland (yes, even Ireland). We have never fully measured up to this principle, but it remains, and should remain, the objective to which we continually strive. It means that our accomplishments and “place” in society largely reflect our own talents and efforts. We are a nation of individual liberty. We are free (to a large extent) to make our own decisions. Our policy disputes often concern where to draw the line between what we decide for ourselves and what the government decides for us. My blog last week on our response to Covid-19 provides an example: https://wcoats.blog/2021/03/06/the-unnecessary-fight-over-covid-19/

Equity (equal outcomes) was the fundamental principle of the Soviet Union, though its outcomes fell far short of the principle. Between these extremes of equity (communism/socialism) and equality (equal treatment under the law) is our actual world of governments with more intrusive or less intrusive rules and dictates on our behalf, with broader or narrower social safety nets, etc.  America continues to debate where and how to set these boundary’s, but one of our great strengths, and a source of our broadly shared affluence, is undertaking the debate from the side of (and with the presumption of) self-reliance (with family and friends) and equality under the law.

The distinction between equity and equality is sharply contrasted in the following WSJ oped.

THE  WALL  STREET  JOURNAL.

Friday,  March  5,  2021.

Section A, Page 17, Column 1

‘Equity’ Is a Mandate to Discriminate

The new buzzword tries to hide the aim of throwing out the American principle of equality under the law.

By Charles Lipson


On his first day as president, Joe Biden issued an “Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities.” Mr. Biden’s cabinet nominees must now explain whether this commitment to “equity” means they intend to abolish “equal treatment under law.” Their answers are a confused mess.

Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton raised the question explicitly in confirmation hearings. Attorney General-designate Merrick Garland responded: “I think discrimination is morally wrong. Absolutely.” Marcia Fudge, slated to run Housing and Urban Development, gave a much different answer. “Just to be clear,” Mr. Cotton asked, “it sounds like racial equity means treating people differently based on their race. Is that correct?”

Ms. Fudge’s responded: “Not based on race, but it could be based on economics, it could be based on the history of discrimination that has existed for a long time.” Ms. Fudge’s candid response tracks that of Kamala Harris’s tweet and video, posted before the election and viewed 6.4 million times: “There’s a big difference between equality and equity.”

Ms. Harris and Ms. Fudge are right. There is a big difference. It’s the difference between equal treatment and equal outcomes. Equality means equal treatment, unbiased competition and impartially judged outcomes. Equity means equal outcomes, achieved if necessary by unequal treatment, biased competition and preferential judging.

Those who push for equity have hidden these crucial differences for a reason. They aren’t merely unpopular; they challenge America’s bedrock principle that people should be treated equally and judged as individuals, not as members of groups.

The demand for equal outcomes contradicts a millennium of Anglo-Saxon law and political evolution. It undermines the Enlightenment principle of equal treatment for individuals of different social rank and religion. America’s Founders drew on those roots when they declared independence, saying it was “self-evident” that “all men are created equal.”

That heritage, along with the lack of a hereditary aristocracy, is why claims for equal treatment are so deeply rooted in U.S. history. It is why radical claims for unequal treatment must be carefully buried in word salads praising equity and social justice.

Hidden, too, are the extensive measures that would be needed to achieve equal outcomes. Only a powerful central government could impose the intensive—and expensive—programs of social intervention, ideological re-education and economic redistribution. Only an intrusive bureaucracy could specify the rules for every business, public institution and civic organization. Those unhappy implications are why advocates of equity are so determined to hide what the term really means.

Americans have demanded that all levels of government stop giving special treatment to the rich and powerful. That is simply a demand for equality. Likewise, they recognize that equal treatment should begin early, such as with adequate funding for K-12 students.

Since the New Deal, most Americans have supported some form of social safety net for the poor and disadvantaged. But this safety net doesn’t demand that out-of-work coal miners receive the same income as those who are working. The debate has always been about how extensive the safety net should be and how long it should last for each recipient. There is broad agreement that no worker should be laid off because of his race, gender or religion. Again, that is a demand for equal treatment.

What we are seeing now is different. It is the claim that the unfair treatment of previous generations or perhaps a disadvantaged childhood entitles one to special consideration today as an adult or young adult. Most Americans, who are both generous and pragmatic, have been willing to extend some of these benefits, at the margins and for limited periods. They don’t want to turn these concessions into large, permanent entitlement programs, giving substantially different treatment to different groups, even if those groups have suffered historical wrongs.

One measure of how unpopular these unequal programs are is how often their proponents need to rename them. “Quotas” were restyled as “affirmative action.” The goal was still to give special benefits to some groups to achieve desired outcomes. Now “affirmative action” has also become toxic, rejected most recently by voters in deep-blue California. Hence, the new name, “equity.”

Instead of making their case openly and honestly, advocates of equity twist and turn to avoid revealing their radical goal of re-engineering society through coercion. If the results fall short, as they inevitably would, the remedy is obvious: more money, more rules and more indoctrination. Why not tell us who will receive these special benefits and for how long? At whose expense? Who will administer these programs? Who will judge whether the outcomes are fair enough? When will it all end?

Since the ultimate goal is achieving equal outcomes, these evasions raise the hardest question of all. Isn’t equity just a new brand name for the oldest program of achieving equal outcomes? Its name is socialism.

Mr. Lipson is a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security.

Are Venture Capitalists racists?

Shifting sovereignty from Kings to the people, was the beginning of human flourishing. In the United States, in its constitution the people returned only those powers to their government necessary to protect their wellbeing. The right to and protection of ones honestly acquired property is an essential aspect of this arrangement. This includes, of course, the right to invest our property anyway we choose.

Venture capitalists are those wealthy people who choose to take great risks in the prospect of large gains by investing in “startups” that have not yet established their profitability.  Put differently venture capitalists are prepared to finance an unproven idea/product/service that might gain public approval, i.e. might become profitable, though most of them fail.  As consumers we have benefited enormously from goods and services my parents never would have even imagined that a few wealthy investors took a chance on.

So the idea that the government might need to enact laws to insure that a venture capitalist’s investments do not reflect racial bias is shocking at several levels. “In the clubby world of venture capitalists, who spent $130 billion in the United States last year and helped anoint the world’s four most valuable companies and countless other successful start-ups, there is effectively no legal backstop that ensures people of color have an equal opportunity to share in its wealth creation.”   “Black-entrepreneurs-venture-capital”

First of all is the right of these investors to their property. They can give it all to their daughters if they want to.  Marxists and other egalitarians reject such a right but that would throw away the whole basis of the wealth our capitalist system has created that Marxists would like to redistribute.  But I want to focus on why capitalism minimizes the role of bias in our economic decisions.  This was explored long ago by Nobel Lauriat Gary Becker in his famous 1976 book on the Economics of Discrimination.

Becker’s basic point is that if your economic decision is influenced by racial or sexual or any other non-economic bias it will cost you money, i.e. you will make less than you otherwise would have.  If you hire a man when a woman was better qualified, he will contribute less to your company’s income than would have the woman, thus you pay a financial price for your bias. The same is true if you hire a white person when a black one was better qualified, etc.

The purpose of venture capitalist investments is to make a bundle by funding the next great idea. Most will fail but one or two turn into Facebook, or Amazon.  It may well be that a venture capitalist systematically under rates the potential of black entrepreneurs, i.e. that he suffers racial bias.  But in that case he will be less successful in his investments.  Capitalism will punish him for his prejudices and diminish his importance as a venture capitalist because it will diminish his wealth. None the less, an Irish venture capitalist may well bias her investments toward fellow Irishmen and a black venture capitalist may risk an extra break for a fellow black. But the profit motive of capitalism will discourage departures from objective evaluations of investment prospects.

The idea that a law should forbid or discourage racial or sexual bias when venture capitalists decide in what to invest is without merit.  Moreover, it is hard to imagine what such a law would look like and/or on what basis a government bureaucrat would overrule and direct the placement of a private investor’s chose of investments.

To peak briefly at the other–entrepreneurial–side of the equation, the unbiased opportunity provided by capitalism has attracted many foreigner entrepreneurs to our shores.  Steve Jobs (Apple, NeXT, Pixar), who was adopted at birth, was the son of Joanne Schieble who was Swiss-American and Abdulfattah “John” Jandali who was Syrian.  Steve Wozniak, Apple cofounder, was the son of Polish and Swiss-German parents.  Sergey Brin cofounder of Google/Alphabet escaped from the Soviet Union.  The famous architect, I.M. Pei, immigrated from China.  “How-12-immigrant-entrepreneurs-have-made-america-great”

Independence Day Celebration

As we listen carefully to the current criticisms of America, we should see them in the context of the wonderful features of our nation that continue to attract tens of thousands of the world’s best and brightest to become Americans and thus add to the material and cultural richness of our lives. We should not lose sight of, nor stop defending, the features of our society that have made us the Land of Opportunity even as we confront and strive to deal with our shortcomings. Those motivated by making more money and those motivated by serving and doing good to others enjoy the incentives for both in our free enterprise system. We make money by serving others, by creating better things and services for the benefit of our fellow man.

Our rights to make our own decisions and speak our minds are protected by our Constitution and its Bill of Rights. Our property and commitments (contracts) are protected by the Rule of Law. Indeed, our history is not without sin, far from it.  Slavery was practiced almost from the beginning of time, and our new nation shamefully participated in the practice for almost the first hundred years of its existence. Discriminatory laws and practices replaced slavery for many decades beyond the end of slavery.  Though all Americans now enjoy the equal protection of the law, the uninformed prejudices of some persevere. Our culture of mutual caring that is nurtured by our capitalist economic system and the values taught by all major religions, continue to make progress towards shrinking and isolating bigots. But we have a ways to go.  We have engaged in wars that are not justified by our defense and that are inconsistent with our values. In this area our economic incentives are perverse.

Our freedom to speak out when we see wrong and to praise what is good are critical to preserving what is good and fixing what is not.  The “cancel culture” crowd seem more intent on tearing America down than building it up by fixing its weaknesses.  The current cancerous attacks on our freedom to speak out and debate the important issues of our day in the name of political correctness risks undermining our progress:  “America’s Jacobin moment”.  This is not to say that we should not strive to address our fellow Americans politely “What is wrong with PC?”.  But if we become afraid to express our views and concerns honestly, we lose the ability to understand one another and build mutually satisfactory compromises. “Do we really need free speech?”.

So on this celebration of our Declaration of Independence and the birth of our nation let’s commit ourselves to preserving what has made us great, which includes the ability to freely criticize what is not so great, and to admit and learn from our mistakes and to work at becoming better still: freer, responsible for our own lives, and more compassionate toward others.