The True Threat to Britain

There's a cop up ahead. Crucify him? Or just harsh words? / Romanarmy.net

There’s a cop up ahead. Crucify him? Or just harsh words? / Romanarmy.net

Apropos of nothing, I’ve realized that Roman military reenactment is rather popular in the United Kingdom. In a country that has not only strict gun laws, but also draconian laws restricting anything sharper than a cutting comment, there’s an enormous loophole. To bypass those tight regulations regarding knives, swords, and javelins, you need only say the magic words: “Holy shit, have you had a look at Bettany Hughes’s tits?”

So, you can’t go pistol shooting, you’re forbidden to defend yourself with a knife, and even hanging a sword on the wall is a chancy thing. But training in the weapons and tactics of the army that conquered most of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East and held it for centuries is totally cool.

Let’s be clear. These reenactors could march across the country half-drunk, just like real legionaries, and take it over. At least, they could be impolite while making clanking noises to millions of Britons.

True, The U.K. has a well-trained, and pretty well-armed, military. And if its troops are able to catch an Uber ride, it’s probably game over for any coup attempt too small too fill more than a pub or two. But if that Uber ride is suborned or simply delayed by a fellow traveler…

Well, then it’s Senatus Populus que … what? … Manchesterus?

Solar Power is a Cool Idea With Lousy Execution

Bow down before Ra!

Photo: AleSpa

I’m intrigued by the idea of solar power, as are many people. Pointing solar panels toward the sun and simply harvesting energy–what a cool concept! So last year I looked into having solar installed at my house and made appointments with representatives from two companies to come out and bid on the project. One was SolarCity, the national firm headed by Elon Musk, and the other was a local company with a good reputation.

My major requirement for both companies’ bids was that I wanted a system that gave me access to the power I generate. That sounds like a natural, right? You have solar panels on your roof or in your yard, just feet from your home. You’d think you should be able to use the power they generate. Well, you’d think that, but that’s not always the case.

For years, most solar installations have been designed to be grid tied–hooked to the electric grid–and dependent on net metering requirements that obligate electric utilities to buy the resulting power. Basically, you install a generator on your property and sell juice to the electric company, but draw your own power for home use from the same grid as everybody else. In a blackout, despite the solar panels on the roof, your refrigerator stops humming just like everybody else’s appliances. You might have a plug or two available to you on the installation, but that’s it. And, of course, once the sun goes down, the panels don’t generate anything. Your installation lowers your bill, but it gives you no added independence.

So, I asked the solar salesmen to bid me on some storage capacity so that those panels on my roof would benefit me directly, not just as a bill-lowering measure. SolarCity had just included Powerwall batteries–basically Tesla car batteries–in its line. The local company had two battery vendors to pick from and offered me a couple of options.

To cut to the chase, there are no solar panels on my roof, a year later. The local company’s bids were very well-considered, very flexible, and between $30,000 and $40,000 based on some variables. From that I’d be able to subtract tax credits, but that’s a big chunk of change. SolarCity’s bid came in just shy of $40,000, and I wasn’t convinced that its battery installation would be worth a damn, because my research on Powerwall capabilities turned up information entirely at odds with the salesman’s vague assurances. The lion’s share of that cost was the batteries; the panels themselves were roughly 30%-40% of the overall expense, but they alone didn’t do what I wanted.

When I said thanks but no thanks. The local company rep was very understanding. The Solar City guy tried to guilt trip me with the following text message.

X from SolarCity here… don’t want to bother you but I did some more research into the politics of solar in AZ since your accountant thought that was what you should base your decision on. It turns out there are laws in place on both the federal and state levels that protect solar consumers after they go solar. There is no chance, according to precedent, that your contract with APS will change after you go solar. They are putting out confusing scare tactics to try and stall people until next year when rates will be higher for new customers. I have a letter directly from APS that they sent to existing solar customers explaining the grandfathering contract which promises NO INCREASE FOR EXISTING CUSTOMERS. So if you want to do the right thing for your sons future… and set a good example… please get back in touch with me so I can show you the APS document which guarantees you are  protected when you go solar for the life of your equipment. Thanks for reading!

If you want to piss me off, try convincing me to give you $40,000 as an expression of love for my son.

But what was the SolarCity guy talking about?

He and I had discussed not just the price, but the fact that the entire basis for making a net metering arrangement pay for itself depended on legal requirements that power utilities purchase power from people who install panels, and assumptions that the details of the arrangement will remain largely unchanged for two or more decades. He’s right that the contract itself is unlikely to change, but there can certainly be added costs in a market in which the buyers are all unwilling and actively lobbying to change the law. A market made by politics can be unmade the same way, and I didn’t want to get stuck with a legacy system based on old legal arrangements–especially since the batteries required to give me some actual energy independence add so much expense.

Why are the batteries so expensive? Well, battery technology has made incremental progress over the years, while the panels themselves have improved by leaps and bounds. Much of that is just technological reality. You can’t make a breakthrough happen. But in the case of solar power the incentives have been legally crafted to encourage grid-tied installations with little thought to storage. The law has crafted a model that depends on an artificial market at the expense of allowing the natural development of a market that would take advantage of solar power’s natural ability to create electricity where it’s needed (which is both convenient and an attractive prospect at a time when there’s growing concern over the power grid’s vulnerability to deliberate attack).

Tellingly, when Britain reduced subsidies, new installations flatlined, demonstrating how artificial the market is.

Letting the solar market develop naturally would encourage installations based on its strengths–perhaps a greater focus on battery research–and weaknesses alike. Weaknesses? Yes, a big part of the battery cost in my bids results from the need for oversized storage to accommodate the startup load — often three times the running load — for appliances designed with a grid-tie in mind. If you build a home and install appliances that start slowly and run smoothly — say a small well pump that continuously feeds a cistern from which water flows downhill into a home rather than a larger pump that runs intermittently to a pressure tank — you reduce storage needs. But if you create artificial incentives for a different kind of market, that potential is likely to be overlooked.

Unlike the SolarCity rep, the local company rep was actually a bit apologetic with his bid. He told me that he knew the market was changing and that he thought they’d lost valuable time during which they could have worked to develop a different sort of market by relying on the net metering requirements. I really wish I could have given him my business.

But instead, I installed a generator tied into natural gas. It just makes more sense for my current needs, no matter how cool solar power looks.

Dear Trumpkins and Clintonistas, Your Candidates Are Evil

Choose the form of your destructor!

Corrupt-ilicious or tyrant-tastic?

As I write these words, the FBI is reportedly investigating, after an aborted earlier attempt, Hillary Clinton’s use of the Clinton Foundation to, essentially, peddle access and government positions to generous donors. The revelations are actually just the culmination of a long-festering pattern of behavior that has seen suspicious favors done for individuals and companies including UBS, Uranium One, and the Saudi government.

Her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, is busy trying to shrug off reports that his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, pocketed millions of illegal dollars in payments from a pro-Russian Ukrainian political party. Trump, famously, has a man-crush on the thuggish Russian strongman and has even gone so far as to deny Russian military designs on Ukraine after Putin seized Crimea. Or maybe the money is unrelated–after all, he praised North Korea’s ruthless dictator, Kim Jong Un and the Chinese government’s brutal suppression of protests at Tiananmen Square without obvious compensation. This is independent of Trump’s attack just yesterday on freedom of the press.

Oh, and both Trump and Clinton have very serious problems with free speech in general.

Let’s face it: These are two of the shittiest creatures to ever to crawl out from under a rock and scurry into American politics, which is saying something, considering that it’s not an industry that brings out the best in people. But even compared to the control freaks, Klansmen, and grifters who have long made their livings by seeking government office, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton bring an unprecedented degree of overt grasping corruption and explicit contempt for the rest of the human race to their quests for the vast powers of the U.S. presidency. It’s no stretch to say that they embody evil in a way that we rarely have so openly rubbed in our faces.

Choose the form of the destructor, indeed.

To their credit, a good many Americans have glanced at what the Republican and Democratic parties left on the carpet and immediately gagged at what they’d stepped in. Clinton and Trump have consistently scored record high unfavorable ratings with voters. But they went on to win the nominations of their respective political parties anyway, testifying to the sad shape of these two senile and creaky organizations. Since then, “a full 13 percent of Americans would rather have a meteor hit Earth than vote for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton,” according to pollsters.

And yet…I’m still hearing people say that we have to choose between the psychopath and the sociopath. We must choose the form of the destructor, because it’s irresponsible to vote third party/refuse to vote. They insist that Gary Johnson and Jill Stein can’t win the election (because you shouldn’t vote for them, I guess) and not voting makes you responsible for the the destructor who ultimately triumphs. We must embrace evil, or else the other evil will win.

I think Julian Assange of Wikileaks had it right when he said, “You’re asking me, do I prefer cholera or gonorrhea?” Neither for me, please.

Look, you can talk the inevitability of the two-party system all you like, but that doesn’t mean it has to be these two parties. In healthy democracies, political parties rise and fall. In recent years, Canada’s Reform Party competed with and then supplanted the Progressive Conservative Party before changing its name to “Conservative.” Before that, Britain’s Labour Party bumped the Liberal Party out of the ranks of the two dominant parties (though the displaced entity, now known as Liberal Democrats, hung on and is part of the current government as a junior partner to the Conservative Party). Even in the U.S. the Republican Party croaked the Whig Party in the 1850s and took its place. Political parties are private organizations. They live only so long as people see a need for them, and can be replaced when they do awful things like nominating evil people as their candidates for president.

Did I mention that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are both horrible human beings and that to pick between them is to choose different brands of malevolence?

Look, if you really just can’t get enough of corrupt-ilicious Hillary or find the Donald just tyrant-tastic, knock yourself out with your chosen destructor. Just don’t act astonished when the rest of us back away with a frozen look of horror on our faces.

Because we’re better than that. And we’re still trying to scrape your candidate off our shoes.

In Which I Am Interviewed at Length About Politics, Criminal Hijinks, and Near-Death Experiences

A buddy of mine, Paul Fuhr, has a weekly podcast in which he interviews interesting people at length about what makes them tick. A few weeks ago, he included me in the category of people he considered worthy of a chat for his Fuhrious Podcast. I’ll let his summary speak for itself (note that I was managing editor of Reason.com, while the excellent Katherine Mangu-Ward was and remains managing editor of the print magazine):

Jerry Tuccille called in from his home near Sedona, Arizona to discuss Libertarianism, the publishing world, the election, what inspires him, hiking the Desert Southwest, family art heists, trying not to die while camping, buying John Cusack a beer, and the challenges of homeschooling. Tuccille is a political writer for Reason, the foremost libertarian magazine in the U.S., where he was its managing editor. His articles have appeared everywhere from Salon to the Washington Times, covering government overreach, civil liberties, and free markets. (Intro Song: “Don’t Wanna Know If You’re Lonely,” Husker Du)

The interview can be found here.

Trump (and Sanders) Damage Not Just America, But the Liberal Democracy Brand

Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew / Photo by U.S. Department of Defense

A few days ago, the editorial page of China’s Global Times basically pointed at America’s political system and laughed. Look at what the nagging democrats coughed up!

Big-mouthed, anti-traditional, abusively forthright, [Trump] is a perfect populist that could easily provoke the public. Despite candidates’ promises, Americans know elections cannot really change their lives. Then, why not support Trump and vent their spleen?

The rise of a racist in the US political arena worries the whole world. Usually, the tempo of the evolution of US politics can be predicted, while Trump’s ascent indicates all possibilities and unpredictability. He has even been called another Benito Mussolini or Adolf Hitler by some Western media.

Mussolini and Hitler came to power through elections, a heavy lesson for Western democracy. Now, most analysts believe the US election system will stop Trump from being president eventually. The process will be scary but not dangerous.

Even if Trump is simply a false alarm, the impact has already left a dent. The US faces the prospect of an institutional failure, which might be triggered by a growing mass of real-life problems.

Pundits immediately (and rightly) jumped on this, pointing out the flaws that the paper was ignoring in China’s own authoritarian system of government, which not only excludes public input but also suppresses dissent. “Of course, there are a couple of glaring lacunae in that argument,” noted the Washington Post‘s Simon Denyer. “The most obvious being the tyranny and mass insanity unleashed by Mao Zedong, who killed tens of millions of his own people, (as indeed Stalin did in the Soviet Union). But hey, that bit of history is officially glossed over here.”

And no matter the populist lunacy into which democracies descend, they’re pretty good at peaceful shifts in political leadership. Dictatorships are a bit clumsy at that whole transition of power thing.

But Denyer and other commenters missed the fact that the Global Times editorial wasn’t a one-off. It’s part of a much larger reconsideration of the principles of government by much of the world that hasn’t fully (or at all) adopted liberal democratic values.A lot of that “reconsideration” is self-serving twaddle by autocrats looking to retain power while granting their subjects sufficient access to prosperity that they don’t revolt. But there’s enough truth to the analysis of the West’s flaws and the growing political crisis in supposedly stable, established systems that editorials criticizing democracy can gain traction among educated people who are deciding on their own future path.

Similar criticism could also be directed at Bernie Sanders–a surging politician who would and should be the year’s astonishment if Americans weren’t flocking in even greater numbers to support an orange authoritarian narcissist. The Vermont socialist’s promises to loot prosperous Americans to support a ludicrous grab-bag of unaffordable goodies are excellent examples of a prevailing problem with western democracies that dominated attention before the emergence of an open thug on the U.S. scene.

In 2014’s The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State, John Micklethwait, then editor-in-chief of The Economist, and Adrian Woolridge, management editor of the same magazine, sketched the “revolution” in government through the nation state, the liberal state, and the welfare state. Published just two years ago, the book seems almost quaint as it discusses the crisis in which the modern welfare state finds itself–before the political eruptions of the last year which drove a populist thug to prominence in the Republican Party, an economically illiterate socialist to draw crowds of young Americans, a crazy Trotskyite to gain the leadership of Britain’s Labour Party, the surge of nationalist-populists in Germany, France… But though overshadowed since, the authors’ points about the crisis of the modern western political system remains valid. Describing the condition of Britain in the 1970s, they write, “Ever-bigger government meant ever-greater social dysfunction. Vested interests competed ever more viciously for their share of the pie.”

More importantly, those flaws have been picked up by those seeking an alternative–an alternative to western democracy, and also an alternative to loosening their own grip on power.

“When you have popular democracy, to win votes you have to give more. And to beat your opponents in the next election, you have to promise to give more away. So it is a never-ending process of auctions–and the cost, the debt being paid for by the next generation,” they quote Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew as commenting. Lee, who died last year, famously created an economically free and socially authoritarian city state that has limited  democratic input–and stiff penalties for too vigorously criticizing the powers-that-be.

Lee was listened to and is eagerly studied, partly because he tells many people what they want to hear, but also because even when his tightly controlled system suffers an economic setback, it still seems to be doing better than the much freer democracies of the West.

And his example has been adopted and touted elsewhere. At the China Executive Leadership Academy in Pudong (CELAP) which trains the country’s future government apparatchiks and considers models to take the massive country into the future “there are better places to look than gridlocked America–most notably Singapore.”

The Singapore model is also admired, write Micklethwait and Woolridge, in places including Russia, Dubai, and Rwanda.

So the Global Times editorial fits into the ongoing erosion and disparagement of the western model of liberal democracy–often on a very calculated and deliberate basis–by people considering what system of governance should take them into the future. Many of those people obviously want an authoritarian model that maintains their clout and privileges. But to the extent the established western democracies keep shitting the bed, the Lee Kuan Yews of the world will find an increasingly receptive audience among those who need a system that effectively allows them to get rich while protecting lives and property. Civil liberty…well, if it leads to Trump, maybe they’ll pass.

While critical of libertarianism–at least in quasi-anarchist form–Micklethwait and Woolridge call for a revival of classical liberal solutions which most people would recognize as libertarian. They want to see the state restrained and reduced in size, power devolved, and rights protected. They see that–convincingly I think–as reinvigorating liberal democracy and securing its continued existence where it is already established, as well as its status as a model for the rest of the world.

“It is time to put the ‘liberal’ back into ‘liberal democracy’: to persuade both voters and governments to accept restraints on the state’s natural tendency to overindulge itself.”

Yes, I think that’s convincing. But how to accomplish that is the trick. How do you convince people to rein it in when they’re reveling in the use of the state as a bludgeon (Trump voters) or a mugger-for-hire (Sanders supporters)? Because if they don’t limit themselves, the system will fall apart–and then the Lee Kuan Yews of the world will happily do the limiting for them.

It’s Not Just Trump; the Rot Goes Deeper

Over the weekend, I received a slightly frantic message from an old friend beside herself over the Trump phenomenon that has dominated this year’s political cycle–and looks poised to turn the Republican Party into a smoking pile of wreckage. Her note contained horror not just at Trumpkins, but Republicans in general, who she characterized as “PRO violence, bigotry, racism, lies, hot air and nonsense…”

She’s a Bernie Sanders supporter, herself, and somewhat enamored of socialism.

She went on to explain how she advised a daughter who lives in New Zealand to never move back to the U.S.

I don’t think it’s a surprise to anybody that I share her dismay over the rise of Trump’s cult of personality. But my diagnosis is rather different. I think the rot goes deeper and has spread more widely. Below is my reply to her.

***

Hi B–!
I appreciate your sentiments. This campaign season is bringing out strong feelings, often for good reason. But some of those feelings–the more vitriolic ones–are part of the problem.

Donald Trump

Photo by: Michael Vadon

Keep in mind that both major political parties are in crisis. The Democratic Party would be perceived as a basket case, if the Republican Party weren’t so obviously on the brink of disintegration and in the process of being hijacked by a populist thug. As Britain’s The Economist notes, “The state of the Republicans is particularly parlous. But the contradictions among Democrats, though less obvious, also run deep.” Trump, a political centrist of the populist variety (really) could have easily run under either party’s banner, but he chose the more hollow and direction-less one for convenience’s sake. That’s because the Republican establishment (some individuals excepted) have spent years ignoring ideas and stirring up opposition for the sake of opposition so that they could avoid taking tough positions on important issues like entitlement reform, spending choices, and corporate welfare. Having handed out pitchforks to the mob, they now find themselves on the receiving end.

But the Democrats are not only deeply divided, they’re also increasingly authoritarian, having abandoned their civil libertarian ideals and interest in foreign policy restraint. That’s how we get a primary race between an openly corrupt party hack and an economically illiterate socialist who praises totalitarian regimes.

That would be a disaster for the Democrats — if somebody who acts like Mussolini wasn’t about to run away with the Republican nomination. As another British commentator notes, “The violence seen in Chicago is part of a long-term crisis: the nihilism of the Right, the authoritarianism of the Left and the weakening of republican institutions.”

As that quote implies, the rot goes deeper than the political parties. A big chunk of our population is embracing populism, nativism, and authoritarianism. Trump is attracting the white blue collar vote across ideological divides. Chunks of the electorate are changing party affiliation to support him, especially in the East and rust belt (Pennsylvania, Massachusetts). Given that he happily operates outside the norms of liberal democracy, this is extraordinarily troubling.

It’s also something that won’t be resolved by the destruction and replacement of the GOP, since the populist mob will still be out there and available for the next leader.

I don’t think Trump will win the election; his negatives are prohibitively high and his divisiveness puts a ceiling on support. But I think our political system is actually sicker than just his candidacy would indicate.

Feel free to share the above, if you like. For what it’s worth, New Zealand–and Australia–look to be in better shape than the U.S. or continental Europe [just hours after I wrote this the state election returns came in from Germany, reporting the success of the Trump-esque AfD]. Both, by the way, are not just politically stable, but less socialist overall (despite rhetoric) than the U.S.

Democracy Is Nothing More Than a Fragile Truce–and We’re Testing Its Limits

Is the truce still on?

Karl Popper. Photo: London School of Economics

Karl Popper, the author of the rightly revered The Open Society and Its Enemies, didn’t believe in “the rule of the people” which he dismissed as a “completely impractical ideology.” Oh, he supported democratic systems of government all right–he just thought it was nonsense to pretend that they represented some sort of popular will. “But, of course, nowhere do the people actually rule,” he wrote for The Economist in 1988. “It is governments that rule (and, unfortunately, also bureaucrats, our civil servants—or our uncivil masters, as Winston Churchill called them—whom it is difficult, if not impossible, to make accountable for their actions).”

Instead, Popper favored democracy as an effective means by which “bad rulers can be got rid of without bloodshed, without violence.” His endorsement of elections was pragmatic.

I would go one step further. Democracy represents not just a relatively peaceful means of disposing of bad rulers, it also represents a suspension of (violent) hostilities between opposing factions within a political system. Ultimately, democracy is an unspoken truce among various peoples suffering under the rule of the government in question. They’re bound together by the assumption that the outcome of elections and legislative debates will be less terrible, on balance, than the political consequences of going at it in the streets hammer and tongs.

That we keep coming back to variations of democracy and that even profoundly unrepresentative (and unresponsive) regimes feel obliged to pretend that they represent the outcome of popular deliberation is testimony to the system’s perceived success in this realm.

But having dispensed with the civic religious trappings surrounding elections and recognizing that their value lies in disposing of the malicious and incompetent, and buffering factional disputes, it’s apparent that democracy’s value continues only so long as the vast majority of people agree that its outcomes can generally be expected to be less bad than the possible results of open conflict. If that perception changes, then all bets are off.

This, I think, is one of the better pragmatic arguments for limited and decentralized government in addition to democracy. By reducing the chances that the various factions that compose a society (and which evolve, disappear, and are replaced over time) will have unacceptable outcomes thrust upon them, you increase the likelihood that working within the democratic process will continue to be perceived as preferable to taking a chance on the alternative. Limited government lowers the stakes by putting some areas of life off-limits to political decision-making. Decentralized government (including federalism in the U.S. context) means that factions can implement political preferences in geographic areas where they’re concentrated while leaving largely untouched those areas where people who would find such policies objectionable are dominant. People caught “behind enemy lines” can (and do) move elsewhere to find a regime more to their liking.

Imperfect, no doubt, but a generally workable and peaceful way of allowing people with important differences to live within the same political system.

So, if you really want to break the truce and make conflict-solution outside the system seem more appealing, raise the stakes. Centralize the political system and increase the reach of whoever is currently in power so that people come to believe that they can’t really afford to lose too many political battles. And then raise tensions by making it difficult to change the people running the political machine.

Looking at the dumpster fire that is political debate and the presidential campaign in 2016 America, I can’t help but thinking that the democratic system is broken across the board. In a world in which political parties usually appear and disappear with regularity, the Republican and Democratic parties have been unassailable for a century and a half, as have most of their leaders, making the system appear (rightly) largely unresponsive in turning out politicians that large segments of the population want to see removed from power (Another Bush? Another Clinton? McConnell? Pelosi?). Resentment at the situation has erupted in the populist candidacies of the economically ignorant but crowd-pleasing Bernie Sanders, and the wildly narcissistic but equally crowd-pleasing Donald Trump. And all levels of government have reached ever-further into people’s lives even as decision-making has been concentrated in Washington, D.C., meaning that there’s no way for people to escape from intrusive policy decisions to which they object.

I don’t see how this ends well.

Expensive College Degrees Become a Bit More Pointless

It was nice knowing ya

Photo by Gavin Huang

A few months ago, I wrote about the UK offices of giant accounting firms Ernst & Young and PriceWaterhouse Coopers deemphasizing college credentials in their hiring processes. At a time when college costs are soaring and campuses appear to have degenerated into madhouses, E&Y “found no evidence to conclude that previous success in higher education correlated with future success in subsequent professional qualifications undertaken.”

So E&Y essentially announced that their was no hiring advantage to be had in laying out a mint for tuition and suffering four years of hypersensitivity, and it wasn’t alone.

Now enlist Penguin Random House to the that-college-degree-isn’t-worth-a-damn brigade. “Random House human resources director Neil Morrison said that growing evidence shows there is no simple correlation between having a degree and future professional success,” reports The Guardian. As a consequence, the international publishing company “will no longer require candidates for new jobs to have a university degree.”

As far as these companies are concerned, if you want to go to college, that’s your choice, but it won’t necessarily help you when you apply for a job.

So… When will people begin to decide, en masse, that there’s little attraction to be found in paying out tens of thousands of dollars per year to be immersed in a quasi-totalitarian environment that’s increasingly divorced from real life? We can’t be too many hiring policy announcements away from that point.

With Clinton Campaign Collapsing, Brace Yourself for a Brown vs. Red Election

Offered, for your edification, this comment from Hillary Clinton’s campaign spokesman, Brian Fallon:

“It is alarming that the intelligence community IG, working with Republicans in Congress, continues to selectively leak materials in order to resurface the same allegations and try to hurt Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.”

The offended protest came in response to revelations from an inspector general for the intelligence community that some of the emails the presidential candidate stored on her home-cooked email server when she was secretary of state included “special access program” information. That’s the sort of super-secret label slapped on black projects and other we’d-tell-you-but-then-we’d-have-to-kill-you data.

I’m guessing that the latest details are a deliberate intelligence sector leak, but not necessarily as a gimme to Republicans. I have to think that the country’s spooks are pretty damned appalled at the prospect of a chief executive who cavalierly leaves sensitive data lying around her apartment rather than stored at the office as an attempted end-run around freedom of information requests. Slipping that nugget to the press is probably a shot at torpedoing Clinton’s candidacy and/or pressuring the Justice Department to prosecute, without regard for who else may benefit as a result.

I'm trying to pass one of my policies now. Anybody got some prune juice?

Bernie Sanders/Photo by Gage Skidmore

But the obvious beneficiaries include not just Republican presidential hopefuls, but also Bernie Sanders. The socialist from Vermont is the only serious remaining alternative for the Democratic nomination at a point in time when it’s really too late for anybody else to jump into the normal selection process with hope of getting the donkey party’s nod. He’s already leading Clinton in New Hampshire, competitive with her in Iowa, and gaining nationally. I’m not sufficiently versed on party bylaws to know if there’s still a chance of something being engineered at the convention (both major parties have democratized their procedures over the decades so that the process is far more grassroots-driven than in the past), but it would be exceedingly difficult to foist a top-down establishment pick on the party if Sanders shows up with the requisite delegates.

Would you believe it started as a Y-O-O-O-J joke?

Donald Trump/Photo by Gage Skidmore

With Donald Trump chewing up the scenery on the GOP side, there’s a very real chance of seeing two outsiders seize the major party nominations based on populist campaigns exploiting the collapse of establishment efforts. Sanders is a self-described socialist, while Trump is a personality-driven authoritarian centrist who stirs up nationalist sentiments while vilifying out groups–a fascist at least in the broad sense, if not a Mussolini fanboy.

That means America’s major political parties (which have effectively delegitimized competitors through the schools and media) are within a whisker of handing us a brown vs. red presidential race in the fall of 2016.

For what it’s worth, I recommend bourbon. Or Victory Gin, if you wait a year.

1-in-4 Americans See Government as the Enemy. Hold on For a Wild Ride.

Polling firms have established a decades-long tradition of asking Americans about their fading trust in government and then recording the pathetically low scores. There’s a strongly partisan element to the results: Republicans trust government when their guy is in the White House, and Democrats love them some D.C. when they control the Oval office. But the downward trend has been steady for decades, with the latest Pew poll finding that “just 19% say they can trust the government always or most of the time.” And part of the tradition is the regular rending of garments by media pundits agonized over Americans’ lack of faith in our governing institutions.

It’s all good entertainment, but nobody has really been sure of where it’s going.

Federal government as enemyHowever, the latest Pew poll reveals that much of the public has gone far beyond distrust, now that “27% of registered voters say they think of government as an enemy.” That’s up from 19% in 1996, when we were going through what commentators at the time described as a surge in anti-government sentiment. We’re at the point now where more than a third of Republicans and Independents (but only 12% of Democrats) wouldn’t piss on the government to put it out if it caught on fire.

“Enemy” expresses a stronger feeling than “distrust,” by far. It’s evidence of a segment of the population that views the government as an alien thing–almost an occupying power in hostile hands. Simultaneously, the political camps have become hardened in their positions with regard to the role of government, the activities that should be permitted or banned, and consequently antagonistic toward one another over those differences. It’s not just a polite disagreement on election day, it’s more like an ideological holy war. “Liberals and conservatives disagree over where they want to live, the kind of people they want to live around and even whom they would welcome into their families,” Pew revealed last year.

How we got here is the topic of many articles, research reports, and books. My personal favorite is the Washington State University study that insists that political polarization is the result of TV news deregulation. If only government controlled more of the information we receive, we’d all just get along. Cool story, bro…

More plausibly, the Washington Post‘s Dan Balz wrote that “The bonds that once helped produce political consensus have gradually eroded, replaced by competing camps that live in parallel universes, have sharply divergent world views and express more distrust of opponents than they did decades ago.”

I’ll add that this is very likely the outcome of a government that has taken on an ever-growing role in people’s lives, and centralized policy-making in Washington, D.C. It’s not just the federal government disdained in the abstract–the federal employees who actually barge into people’s lives to enforce policy are also disliked. “More than one-third of survey respondents — 35 percent — voiced ‘little or no confidence’ in federal workers,” according to George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration. Researchers linked that growing dislike to public missteps such as NSA spying and politicized IRS enforcement.

Political polarization

With the stakes in political decisions increasing, the battles over who gets to make those decisions become more intense. In a mobile and Internet-driven world, this motivates people to choose teams and seek support in the world around them and the communities they find in real life and online. Even on social media, such as Facebook, people tend to associate with like-minded people and share stories that reflect their points of view. Americans also are physically clustering in communities of politically and culturally similar people, as revealed in Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort, published in 2008. Presumably, they feel more able to live lives in the way that they prefer when they have relatively few neighbors who want to strictly regulate or even ban favorite pastimes, or otherwise govern in unwelcome ways.

But that understandable process of sorting and associating with the like-minded tends to reinforce views and harden differences. That’s probably inevitable in a world of high-stakes political contests, since most people don’t want to live their lives as political missionaries. It’s also led to a flirtation–not serious, as of yet–with the idea of breaking the country up into more cohesive units. Reuters found last year that a quarter of the U.S. population wants their states to secede from the union. It’s actually 34% of southwesterners. That’s not going to happen anytime soon, but it’s an interesting further sign that many people are done with the federal government, and with unwelcome rules imposed on them by “others” with very different ideas about the proper way to run a country.

Where does this take us?

I see no end in sight to vicious political battles, since I see no end in sight to efforts to centralize policy-making in D.C. and to insert government deeper into people’s lives. There’s no reason to expect feelings to simmer down when the consequences of political losses are so high. Triumphalist celebration of victories will alternate with despair over defeats. In consequence, I expect the perception of government as an enemy to continue to grow, and partisan bad feelings to increase as policy struggles are won and lost and one side or another suffers consequences as a result.

The real-world consequences will probably include declining tax compliance and a growing underground economy–to escape government intrusion, and as a result of a loss of legitimacy by the state. We’ll also likely see mass noncompliance with intrusive and controversial laws, such as we’ve already seen in New York over the “assault weapon” registration law. In some ways, this will mark the transformation of the United States into a more “European”-style country–a goal long sought by people who don’t realize that official policy isn’t necessarily reflected in popular conduct in countries where the government is held in low regard.

There’s evidence that polarization harms the economy and reduces prosperity, so an escalation may well make the battles even more bitter as the damage gets worse.

More speculatively, we may also see an uptick in low-level political unrest–not civil war, but more like Spain where the central government’s authority has limited sway in parts of the country, and where active sabotage of official efforts is not uncommon. That’s especially likely if clustering continues, so that people continue to concentrate in geographically distinct camps where they can live alongside friendly faces and even ignore despised laws. We’ve already seen this in the ranks of rural sheriffs vowing defiance of state and federal gun laws, as well as in the sanctuary city movement.

It’s likely to be a wild ride.