On The Future Of The US

A conservative friend wrote me a note about Benghazi. This was my reply.

“If you get a chance please read Stonewalled by Sharyl Attkinson..scary to me the Scott Pelley and CBS suppressed comments about Benghazi after the debate when they knew it was contradict president..

I am really bothered by the active choice to suppress news versus reporting the facts..”

Yeah, Attikinson is an interesting case because it does bring up a few different questions.

1) Is news being suppressed in general or at CBS? Is Attkinson credible?

2) What actually happened during Benghazi? Should we be outraged over it?

3) What should our national reaction be?

Point one is easy to address. In general: Absolutely not. You read plenty of conservative websites and are well aware of what happened. I read pretty much everything and can assure you that the liberal website have reported on it plenty also. Is the general public aware? Probably not as much as you would like. Probably more than I think is healthy. But that’s not a news suppression issue. That’s an issue of living in a culture that doesn’t value civics (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fmX04EztiTE). In general, the US culture is pretty broken. In general we tend to respond rather than think. In general we are very insulated from what’s going on in the rest of the world. In general we have a self opinion that’s hard to substantiate with facts. But that’s not The Media’s fault. There is good reporting taking place every single day. *Tons* of it, and from a wide variety of sources. The problem isn’t media suppression by the white house, Fox or MSNBC, the problem is cultural apathy. Blaming the media for that is like a child blaming his brother for making him do something bad. Johnny, your brother didn’t break the vase, you did. Stop blaming others for your actions Johnny. The US is, ostensibly, a democracy, but we have a culture of civic illiteracy that’s pretty embarrassing. That almost inescapably leads to poor governance choices.

Point two I suspect we’re going to disagree on. I haven’t read Attkinson’s book, but I’ve read the talking points of course. She seems to have factual gaps in a couple important areas. Key is that she has these gaps *way* after the fact. So she is either deliberately spinning things to support a conservative opinion or the issue is complex enough that it’s hard to remember where all the pieces are and keep everything straight. She had that trouble after taking the time to research and write a book that dealt with only four principle topics (any president is dealing with dozens a day). The administration was dealing with the issue in a very fluid environment where they a) were clearly caught by surprise (right or wrong) and b) didn’t know what they didn’t know. In particular, some in the GOP (and pretty much everyone on tea party controlled Fox) thinks that the response should have been something like “drop everything and engage in super human efforts to save those in the embassy”. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems likely that some things might have been done differently that would have materially effected the outcome, perhaps even to the extent of saving the lost lives. But equally, it could have inflamed already passionate emotions, led to a bigger fight and more lost lives. It’s hard to say on Monday morning, but it is very interesting that as recently as the last president, someone had a very similar situation to which he had a very similar reaction and the conservative media had a very different reaction (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0rO3F6mZUaE). The parallels between these events are striking. Maybe that’s why Fox is so outraged now? Maybe they’ve learned their lesson and are disgusted that Obama didn’t? Maybe when the next Republican president makes a similar kind of mistake they will jump down his throat? I kind of doubt it. For me, I blame neither Obama nor Bush for their “in the moment” reactions to their separate trials.

Point three, what should our national reaction be. This is the hard one. As a nation, the culture is one of arguing talking points on the parts of events that are easy to understand, or at least knowable. Something happened, we can know what that something was and the other guys are libtards or fascists that are trying to destroy the country. Politics has always been ugly. In the early 1800′s the New England Palladium accused Jefferson of being an infidel that would destroy the churches of america if elected. The Sumner attack (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caning_of_Charles_Sumner) is another. During the second world war our treatment of Japanese Americans is well documented and shameful. The Red Scare during the 50′s. But the vast majority of the nation is unaware of these kinds of things and/or just doesn’t care. Just as every generation thinks it has discovered love and sex, so too it seems that every generation thinks it has discovered the ugly side of politics and the country (perhaps the world!) is going to crumble.

The national reaction on benghazi has been to continue to buy the mush most of the media is selling. There have been over hundred network news stories, hundreds of cable news stories, thirteen congressional hearings (plus another fifty congressional briefings) and twenty five thousand pages of official documentation. That seems like plenty about an event. We could get into a deep discussion about Attkinson’s findings, the facts of the day and our respective views on what did, should or shouldn’t have happened, but I’ve become increasingly Rooseveltian over the years. Elanor said “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”

So what are the ideas that matter in the country today?

For me that list includes:

I want the US to stop acting (essentially) unilaterally in invading other countries and killing hundreds of thousands of other humans based on ignorance, racism and trumped up threats. I *really* want the US to just stop killing people, but I’ve read enough history to understand that the world can be a big ugly place and that being completely pacifist is unrealistic and can itself cause huge problems.
I want the US to treat access to health care as a right.
I want the US to treat decent housing as a right.
I want the US to treat access to healthy food as a right.
I want the US to demand that people be paid a living wage.
I want the US to lead the global move toward sustainable energy.
I want racism to end (including sister issues like islamaphobia).
I want the every child to have a decent education.
I want government funded elections.
I want dramatic reforms to the way we imprison, rehabilitate and disenfranchise our criminals.

But that’s all boring right? How can you run a 24 hour news cycle on ideas? Most of them aren’t even “fixable” in any meaningful sense, they are changes that will take generations to achieve if they even can be. I do know that you can’t finish a project you never start.

And those are just some of the ideas that I hold dear and have actually come to conclusions about. The one that I have no idea how to solve is that of increased automation. The 1800′s and 1900′s were the era of agriculture, where there was a mass migration away from farms to cities. The 1900′s were an entire century of industry that lifted standards of living for hundreds of millions. The 2000′s are probably a century of biology as we gain greater and greater understanding of how life works and give ourselves the capability of living longer, healthier lives.

But something else is going to happen in the 2000′s also. Computers are getting smarter every day. Robotics are getting more and more capable every day. No longer are they just multi-million dollar machines replacing workers on automotive assembly lines (a change that has had tremendous impact already), now they vaccum your floor, fly 98% of every flight you take, will soon be driving your car (the impacts of which could be another 1,500 word essay). They drive the equipment on most large farms and manage a myriad of the downstream processes. They pick orders at large warehouses. With the Internet of Things gaining tremendous traction, this is only likely to increase over the next decade. Over time they will continue to take more and more of the menial and unskilled jobs that humans don’t want to do. These jobs are also the only ones that a lot of people are capable of doing. Ignoring for a moment the reality that eventually computers will also be able to do many skilled and semi-skilled jobs, in the initial decades of this change it is worth noting that it is simply a reality that not everyone is capable of being a knowledge worker. Not everyone is capable of being a mechanical engineer. How will a capitalist economy work when there is only a need for 25% of humanity to work and only 40% of the people are smart enough to do those jobs? After all, capitalism doesn’t reward hard work (ask the uneducated mom who works 60 hours a week at two fast food jobs to try and support her family). Capitalism doesn’t reward things society needs (there is arguably nothing more important to today’s economy than an educated workforce, yet the US seems absolutely willing to race to the bottom on teachers wages). Capitalism rewards one thing and one thing only, scarcity. Gold has little intrinsic value. Diamonds have very little intrinsic value. Both are highly valued because they are scarce. Heck, both have been used as currency precisely because of that scarcity. So what happens in the next 50-200 years when human labor of most kinds is no longer necessary, much less scarce. How do people get access to the basic necessities? How do people get more money? What is the nature of work and resource distribution at that point? I haven’t the first clue, but I suspect it’s going to be a very challenging transition.
So that’s my answer to what the national reaction should be. The answer is that we should collectively be completely and utterly unsurprised that people are fallible, when the stakes are as high as those the President deals with, that fallibility will sometimes cost lives. Be sad about those lives, make tactical changes to try and minimize the chances of losing more lives in the immediate future, then return to working on the bigger ideas.

Fermilab was founded in the early 70′s at the same time that the modern environmental movement really started getting legs. They decided to try and restore a native midwestern tall grass prairie, but no one had ever done that before. The founding director asked the question, “how long will this take?”

“Well, no one has ever done it before, so we really don’t know. It might be a few years. It might be a decade. It might take 30 years.”

The director replied, “well, then I guess we better get started tomorow”.

That’s how I feel about the US, and the longer we, as a culture, give Goats and Benghazi more attention than they deserve, the longer before we can start to work on the stuff that matters.