Saturday, December 31, 2016

Goodbye, and Good Luck

I am as mortified by the notion that Donald Trump will be president as the KKK was by a black man in the oval office. How the hell did that happen? we both asked. I don’t plan to hang Trump in effigy, or burn a cross in front of the Trump Tower, but I understand how white supremacists felt. This can’t be my country.

During my lifetime, the arc of the moral universe in this country has, as MLK predicted, bent toward justice. We have steadily improved living and working conditions, steadily expanded voting rights and civil rights, steadily opened the doors of equality to women.

Now we have lurched into a major correction. A bleak recession may follow, one in which hard-won civil liberties and economic opportunity may be pushed back toward where they were before I was born.

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. I never imagined we would take giant leaps backward. Sideways, sure, little half-steps to the rear now and then, but not this. This is wrong. And, frankly, it’s frightening.

I know the theories of why Trump was elected. I understand the plight of the unemployed in the rust belt, the shrinking economic circumstances and self-respect of the white men who used to rule the roost, the fear of immigrants hijacking our jobs and our culture, the fear of women being liberated from their male masters. I just didn’t think there were that many people who felt those things. However understandable, they are bitter and unworthy feelings.

I have always believed in the wisdom of the common man, something I would call common-sense decency. Decency has taken a back seat to something ugly, though. Several ugly things, actually: racism; misogyny; tribalism of the kind that fosters genocides.

I don’t want any part of what’s going on in much of the country now. Love it or leave it, my old Southern redneck friends would say. They had it on their bumper stickers. They had it on their gun racks. Maybe that should have been a warning to me.

I’m not going to leave the country. We have been occupied by a foreign enemy. I will be part of the resistance.

I’m not yet sure what form my resistance will take. Lately, there are days when I’m sorry that I, in a moment of Lennonesque idealism, had my old shotgun melted down.

I do know this is serious, though. This is a categorically different menace than we have faced in my lifetime. We must resist. Our way of life is at stake.

See you at the barricades. For now: Goodbye, and good luck.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

For Whom the Bell Tolls

“What am I going to do with a horse?” Anselmo says.

His comrades in arms are trying to get him up the hill to a horse that could take him to safety. He knows he’s too badly wounded. He will surely die, and he would only slow them down as they retreat. They leave him a bottle of whiskey and a gun. He promises to kill the enemy, but we and he know the last bullet will be for him.

So it goes in war. Some make it, some don’t.

We are in a new kind of war now, one no less devastating than the epic battles of the Spanish Civil War of which Hemingway wrote and the world wars of that century. Ours is an economic war that here in the US will leave many to die in the pocked landscapes of abandoned coal mines and rusting assembly lines. Elsewhere, it will leave many more to die in the steaming jungles of Africa and the harsh deserts of the Middle East. The idled coal miners and factory workers will die of despair. Around the world, millions dispossessed by global warming and nationalistic strife will die of hunger and thirst, and worse.

But take heart: to paraphrase Martin Luther King, the arc of economic development is long, but it bends toward prosperity.

On the whole, the world is better off today than it has ever been. There is great economic inequality, but the lowest on the ladder have better lives than those before them. The economic wild kingdom is not fair, but it favors survival of the species. Predators kill and others feed off the leftovers. From an economic standpoint, there is more killing and more leftovers than ever.

We no longer live in Feudal times, though. We have awakened to our humanity, and our inhumanity. Survival of the fittest is no longer a sufficient guiding principle. We want to take care of those left behind, or at least give them a better chance to make something good out of what they have, even if that doesn’t include stock options.

Full employment has been the way we meant to create opportunity for all in the U.S. As technology advances, though, robots are taking more U.S. jobs than the Chinese. Robots are taking Chinese jobs too. No less an authority than economics Nobel Laureate Angus Deaton said recently that he doesn't think “globalization is anywhere near the threat that robots are.”

Worldwide, free trade has lifted millions from ignorance and paucity. But nationalism gets in the way of free trade from time to time. And trade alone is not enough to help the millions of refugees from Syria and other devastated countries. Trade alone will not topple despots.

We need to start by taking care of business at home. But we need to be sensible about it. Protectionism won’t keep out the robots. The coal mines and the steel mills aren't coming back. And the people who worked them aren’t likely to be retained as software engineers. No matter how prosperous we get, we probably aren’t going to be able to find jobs for those who are rotated out of employment by immutable changes in their industries. We need to help them the old fashioned way: the equivalent of a sandwich at the back door, a place to stay in the garage. We need to give them the money they need to live. They can’t earn it. We might as well face that.

As to the world, there is less we can do. But we must not look away. We must not say to ourselves that their problems are not ours. Even if we didn’t think it was immoral to ignore their suffering, from a practical standpoint it is unwise. They will hate us. They will attack us. They already do. They already are.

How to help them is not clear. We can’t offer them a minimum income, as we can our own citizens. The best we can do, I think, is to engage with their leaders to encourage democratic governance and equal rights. Those conditions are not sufficient for economic opportunity, but they are necessary. We and they will have to rely on human ingenuity and ambition for the rest.

The old model of liberal economics called for the free flow of goods and services in a capitalistic economy to provide the greatest overall prosperity possible. I don’t think we have come up with a better model. But we have begun to realize that there will always be losers in that system. As the distance between us shrinks, both at home and in the world, we can see our neighbors more clearly than ever. We can see the want on their faces. We can see their sorrow and desperation. And we can see that their circumstances are most often not their fault. It has gotten too hard to keep looking the other way.

A bottle of whiskey and a gun may have been what was needed for poor old Anselmo, but we owe more to those among us who have been left wounded and crippled by the very economic system that has made the rest of us wealthy.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Truth, the Brand

When Pinocchio lied, his wooden nose grew longer. He had some ups and downs on the Island of Lost Boys, but got to be a real boy in the end. Charming story. And the source of the Pinocchio award for not telling the truth in politics. Earlier this week, Donald Trump earned four Pinocchios from Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post for falsehoods about unemployment rates. 

I doubt anyone noticed.

Rick Perlstein had a nice piece on Meet The Press last week about the current dysfunction in journalism. Journalists are trained to see and report both sides. In the run-up to the last presidential election, this resulted in an avalanche of what in common parlance has become known as false equivalents. We all know about this. We all have our own opinions about what is false and what is equivalent. I won’t bore you, or try your patience, with mine.

But I will suggest this for your consideration: Truth, the brand, is losing value at an alarming rate. If I were in charge of making money selling truth, I would be panicked. I’d be calling in consultants. I’d be looking for a new marketing strategy. Truth has become dull. No one wants it anymore.

I went to a holiday party recently that was given by a Knight Fellow in Journalism at Stanford. Her home was full of practicing journalists who are serious students of journalism from all over the world. I didn’t talk to them all, but I found a consistent theme that was both inspiring and depressing: The job of journalists is not to take sides. It is to search for the truth in a professional, evenhanded way.

Good luck with that. The other team, Liars Inc., is not shackled by the ethical constraints of professional journalists. The noise they make drowns out the truth. The truth isn’t sexy. It isn’t sensational (not when presented responsibly). It rarely makes you want to turn to your friends or spouse and say, “See, I told you there was something funny going on there.”

Or, if it does, the immediate reply is, “Yeah, that’s what they say, but you know they are in that candidate’s pocket. You can’t trust them.”

Think of the truth as the organic cereal in a plain brown box at the end of the grocery shelf, hardly noticeable among the brightly colored boxes of sugar pops and fruit loops. The organic stuff even tastes like its box. Eating it is a chore. You think its good for you, but it’s no fun. Funny, how that box of flax-seed granola lasts so long in the pantry as the boxes of frosted flakes come and go.

Good journalism is consumed at about the same desultory rate as organic cereal. It’s there, in the same old Gray Lady packaging, but fewer and fewer reach for it.

Good journalism is in danger of becoming irrelevant. It doesn’t have our attention anymore. We’re not all listening to Walter Cronkite on the evening news. We’re reading and watching what we want to. We’re self-selecting, living in our own echo chambers. We’re not hearing the truth. It’s not even clear we want to.

So, if you’re peddling the truth—and let’s face it, even journalists and their editors have to sell their stories or there is no way to keep producing them—you’re in trouble. You’re revenues are shrinking. You can see the day, perhaps not too far off, when you won’t be able to keep speaking.

Let’s be honest: you have to change. Your journalistic standards are no longer enough. Not enough people seem to care about them, or even to trust them. You’re going to have to become guerrilla warriors for truth.

To that end, as a loyal consumer of what you are in the business of producing, I offer these modest suggestions (framed in the context of an election, since that is still seared into our psyches):

Deal with a lie the way you would a libel: Newspapers are legally liable if they repeat a libelous statement. So they are careful to independently confirm the truth of the statement. If they can’t, they don’t print it. This would be a good rule to follow when a candidate makes an outlandish claim.

Call out lies for what they are: Even if you aren’t publishing the lies, someone else will. At that point, it becomes your job to report that the candidate is lying. To ask why. To ask whether he can be trusted.

The assertion isn’t the news: There is a school of thought that the very fact that someone running for office says something is news. The idea is that if the statement is farcical, the candidate will be shown to be unserious and unworthy. But lately, that’s not the way the public is taking things. A disturbingly large percentage of the population wants to believe anything their candidate says. By repeating his (or her) every utterance, the press is not showing him to be a joke, they are giving him a megaphone.

Study the enemy: How do unreliable news sources spread their lies? Study their techniques. Emulate them. Get the balanced truth out there side-by-side with the lies. Don't relegate it to the fusty corners of small circulation newspapers and public radio.

Co-operate with other reliable news sources: Competition makes us great. But in war, we need allies. Election misinformation is war. Share sources and leads. Like an army, make yourself stronger by having more specialists and more running shoes on the ground.

Shake off your reticence. Don’t sit back and be overrun by fake news and lies (not to mention the Russians). This is a fight for survival. Not just for journalism, but for the Republic.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

False Positives and the Law

When that spot on your mammogram turns out to be benign, that’s called a false positive. When a blood test shows your PSA level to be normal and you later learn that you had prostate cancer all along, that’s a false negative.

In the law, we rely on evidence to judge guilt or innocence. Was the fingerprint at the crime scene a false positive? Was the alibi a false negative? Doctors ultimately learn the truth about whether their tests were giving them correct diagnoses: their patients develop cancer…or do not. Legal guilt or innocence is almost never known with such certainty. Many a man has gone to the gallows proclaiming his innocence.

A guest lecturer at Stanford Law School recently suggested that the law should try to evaluate legal evidence the way medicine evaluates blood tests, using the theoretical framework of false positives and false negatives. When asked in the Q&A about how to go about that, he said his interest was in posing the questions, and that someone else would have to provide the answers. (Insert your favorite lawyer joke here.)

What if we, unlike the reticent professor, wanted to wade into the murky swamp of evidence? How might we test its reliability?

The clues are stored on ruled-and-numbered legal sheets in gray courthouse filing cabinets and in countless post-trial jury interviews. But they are so scattered and inaccessible that they have not been of much use. Enter the digital wizards of Silicon Valley. With today’s learning algorithms to sift and make sense of vast amounts of data, perhaps the secrets in those dusty tombs can now be unlocked. 

For instance: In how many cases did an eyewitness provide what was apparently the key to conviction? And in how many of those was the defendant later convincingly exonerated by DNA evidence or the confession of another?

What do juries say about what influences them? If we asked them in a systematic way over the course of thousands of trials, and made their answers searchable, what would our artificial intelligence programs tell us about what evidence is most important? And what would we say about that? Is the evidence that convinces juries of a kind we are comfortable being the basis for life or death judgments?

The law has a horror of false positives. A jury’s verdict is not a guide for treatment that can be given and withdrawn, it is a binary final determination: guilty or innocent. William Blackstone, the famous eighteenth-century English legal thinker, said: “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”

Our legal system relies on our humanity. Its foundation is our earnest desire to judge one another fairly. There is a mass of data on how well we do that to be gathered and scanned and looked at from all sides. On questions of the quality and reliability of legal evidence, artificial intelligence could help us get better at passing judgement on our fellow man. Far from being the threatening overlord of science fiction, it could strengthen an essential element of what makes us human.