I’ve just found my favorite election of all time: the 1936 Congressional contest in Minnesota’s Eight District. This election provides us with  an  example of how democratic government ideally should work,  and offers us guidelines for election reform.

In 1934, legislative stalemate blocked redistricting, and all Congressional candidates ran at large. Minnesota effectively had a three-party system at that time, with the leftist Farmer-Labor Party fighting the Republicans for control of the state and the Democrats bringing up the rear (and sometimes threatening to disappear entirely.)

The ninth and last Congressional slot was claimed by Francis Shoemaker, a leftist muckraker and scandalmonger who looked like a tough-guy detective in a noir movie. In the 1929 Congressional election he had done well in defeat,  even though he had been indicted and briefly jailed on charges of libeling a local banker as a “Robber of Widows and Orphans” (which the banker probably was). In 1930, after the election, Shoemaker was finally convicted of libel and given a suspended sentence, but because of his defiant attitude in his newspaper account of the trial the suspension was revoked, and he spent a year in Leavenworth.

For the rest of his career he bragged about his time in prison, while continuing to slander opponents and to physically assault critics and various others. (He was arrested for assault twice during his single Congressional term; neither attack was politically motivated). He was an undistinguished Congressman, and after one term he left the House to challenge Minnesota’s mealy-mouthed Farmer-Labor  Senator Shipstead. He threw a scare into Shipstead at the FLP convention, but was soundly defeated in the primary.

In 1936 Shoemaker was back in action  despite various legal problems, some of them rising from his support of the Trotskyist Teamsters Local 574 in the bloody 1934 trucker’s strike. (He succeeded in pissing off  the Trotskyists as much as he did their opponents). He decided to challenge Republican Congressman Pittinger in the Eighth District. Whether or not Shoemaker had been an effective Congressman, and despite the fact that he was opposed by the Farmer Labor Party leadership, he was a fearsome, no-holds-barred campaigner and Pittinger dreaded  the thought of having to run against him. Through an intermediary Pittinger donated money to Shoemaker’s primary opponent, John Bernard, who defeated Shoemaker but also defeated Pittinger and became the district’s Congressman .

Bernard (a Corsican immigrant miner and fireman with a fondness for the poetry of Lamartine, Musset, and Racine)  was probably a Communist Party member. This period, specifically in Minnesota, was the high point of Communist influence in America, and Bernard was one of the very few Communists ever elected to national office. He distinguished himself as the only Congressman in any party to oppose Roosevelt’s weaselly pro-Fascist neutrality policy in the Spanish Civil War, a  stand which gained him the fierce opposition of the Catholic Church and others, and he was defeated in his run for re-election.

Trivia: one of the other Communist Congressmen, Vito Marcantonio, began his career in the Republican Party. More trivia: Bob Dylan was born in Bernard’s Communist district only five years after Bernard left office.

The Moral of the Story

(Is Emerson Really Serious About This?)

I’m more serious than you are, buddy. Look at your own Congressman. How well is he responding to the present economic crisis? Better than Bernard and Shoemaker would have?  Almost certainly the answer is “No!”

We’re headed into The Second Great Depression. Almost no one in our present political establishment has any clue as to what’s happening or what to do about it. Most of them are bought and paid for, and the vast majority are jellified lackeys who are incapable of any initiative on a topic more substantial than earmarks and constituent service.

Our political elite is offering us two choices. Obama, Summers, and the machine Democrats propose that we give finance almost everything it asks for, wait for things somehow to get better, and start thinking about squeezing the money out of Social Security and “entitlements” somewhere down the line. Meanwhile the Republicans and Blue Dogs are hoping for Obama to fail so that they can take over and institute “Hooverist” austerity measures immediately. (These are really Mellonist measures:  Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate…. purge the rottenness.)

You’re asking yourself:  “Does Emerson really believe that a Communist or a thuggish populist demagogue would better serve the American people than the Congressman I actually do have?”

Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. I’m willing to bet 10-to-1 that your Congressman is effectively worthless.

Neither Bernard nor Shoemaker would put up with any of the Obama / Blue Dog / Republican bullshit. Either of them would have the good sense to scream bloody murder about what they saw happening. But your own Congressman will almost certainly do nothing much at all about all this.

You should be working to bounce him from Congress, but I doubt that you are.

I’m serious and you aren’t.

(Part II will explain the institutional reasons why Minnesota’s political system was healthy in 1936, in contrast to America’s present toxic system.)

“From Leavenworth to Congress”, Frederick L. Johnson, Minnesota History, Spring, 1989.

“The One Man Who Voted ‘Nay'”, Barbara Stuhler, Minnesota History, Fall, 1972.


Evil Christians

A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a fight.

— Robert Frost.

Sen. Dave Schultheis, of Colorado Springs, on Wednesday opposed a bill requiring pregnant women to be tested for HIV so that if they are infected their babies can be treated to prevent the virus’s transfer.

“This stems from sexual promiscuity for the most part, and I just can’t go there,” he said.

“We do things continually to remove the consequences of poor behavior, unacceptable behavior, quite frankly. I’m not convinced that part of the role of government should be to protect individuals from the negative consequences of their actions.”

This is the kind of cruelty and meanness that we have come to expect from the Christians claiming the high moral ground in today’s political debates.  It obviously makes no  sense whatsoever: the bill isn’t about “protecting individuals from the negative consequences of their actions” at all;  it’s about protecting children from the consequences of their mother’s actions (which are assumed to have been sinful, on the ignorant assumption that only bad people get AIDS.)

Schultheis went on:

“What I’m hoping is that yes, that person may have AIDS, have it seriously as a baby and when they grow up, but the mother will begin to feel guilt as a result of that. The family will see the negative consequences of that promiscuity and it may make a number of people over the coming years … begin to realize that there are negative consequences and maybe they should adjust their behavior. We can’t keep people from being raped. We can’t keep people from shooting each other. We can’t keep people from jumping off bridges. People drink and drive, and they crash and kill people. Poor behavior has its consequences.”

According to his site,  Schultheis is  member of the conservative Presbyterian Church in America. He has merged vengeful Christianity with social Darwinism to produce a weird and toxic stew of punitive meanness. When he wished AIDS on an unborn child, that was just more evidence (as if we needed it) that Right-to-Lifers don’t care about “saving preborn children”, but only want to punish lewd women.

The liberal argument against Schultheis normally deadends at this point in singularly unconvincing assertions that religion has no place in politics and that moral judgments are purely personal and should never be imposed on others.

But why? Why not just say that Schultheis is not good at all, but instead evil, and that his gross errors of logic are not innocent, but are motivated by self-serving meanness,  and that he is using his supposed religious beliefs to defend his selfishness and to justify his vicious cruelty? Why should we not just say that Schultheis is a moral leper and that no decent person should associate him ever again?

Schultheis has his scripture:

The LORD is long-suffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression, and by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.

but I have mine:

In those days they shall say no more, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.
But every one shall die for his own iniquity: every man that eateth the sour grape, his teeth shall be set on edge.

In the days of the patriarchs the Hebrews were a tribal people and believed that collective guilt was passed from father to son and from mother to daughter — a belief that still motivates honor killings and blood feuds in the more backward areas of the Middle East. The first Bible reading above expresses the archaic and horrible view that Schultheis still holds, but (as seen in the second reading), this belief was rejected by the prophets already in Old Testament times.  Schultheis’s viciousness does not come from religion at all: he uses the Bible as a shield to protect his own meanness.

As far as I know no Christian denomination explicitly holds that an evildoer can escape punishment for his evil deeds by professing Christianity. However, Christian evildoers inevitably hope for that, and not all churches are scrupulous about telling their parishioners that belief is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. In fact, many sin-and-repent churches actively recruit evildoers to mobilize them against unbelievers and “lax” Christians — not merely forgiving the Christian evildoers their past sins, but also egging them on to further cruelty in the name of the Lord.

Schultheis is only one such person, a thug of God and bullyboy of holiness. Men of God are reluctant to admit that virtuous unbelievers are more blessed than evil Christians, and too many men of the cloth turn a blind eye to the evils and cruelties for which their brutish  Christian soldiers are responsible.

But American liberals have committed themselves so completely to technical solutions, value-neutrality, relativism, laxness, personal liberation, and non-judgmentality that they are unable to call evil Christians evil. Only a few politically-committed Christian groups are willing to do so, and the secular world, which believes that only right-wing Christians are real Christians, will not listen to them.

Many secular liberals, God bless their hearts, think that all Christians are (not evil, obviously, but…) wrong and harmful.  The problem with this view is that it’s only convincing to other secular liberals, and besides that, doesn’t pick out the evil Christians from the others. Other secular liberals try to argue against evil Christians from a practical, prudential, consequentialist point of view,  as though they were dealing with a rational disagreement about policy, but this isn’t really strong enough when you’re talking about someone like Schultheis — it’s like someone telling Hitler about the economic costs of genocide. (And then, some secular liberals and secular moderates  are squishy, and think that we should try to understand evil Christians, and try to dialogue with them….)

If you talk about Schuldheit from within a moral framework, rather than  talking about church and state, or about “What works?”, or about tolerance and open-mindedness, you’ll be talking about the main thing wrong with what Schuldheit said, and you might also be able to convince people that Schuldheit is not just mistaken, but unforgivably vicious, and you will be able to do this without having to convert them entirely to the secular liberal point of view.

But in order to do this, you’d need to be willing to speak judgmentally about cruelty and evil.

Update (edited comment response)

What I’m trying to do is to deny evil Christians the moral high ground, rather than treating this as a secular-religious dispute, or as a dispute between moralism and tolerance.

It’s not true that non-evil Christians do not speak up against these things; it’s just that the media doesn’t find a story there, so no one hears about it.

Treating this as a secular-religious dispute or as a dispute between moralism and tolerance leaves the battle lines right where they’ve been for decades, whereas I’m proposing that we attack evil Christians at their supposed strong point — their morality.

Historically, almost everyone during almost all of history have been religious to some degree, so the assertion that almost all evil has been done by believers is probably mostly true. But an investigation of the irreligious exceptions does not fail to find irreligious monsters.

If you want to attack evil Christians as such, you have to grant the validity of moralizing, but because of their commitments  to freedom, personal liberation, or  objective science, many liberals and radicals  deny its validity.

[The earlier defective and unfinished ending of this piece has been revised and expanded .]


Among educated, thoughtful, sophisticated NPR people, a lot of the time the argument goes meta:

Me: The bankrupt bankers are unbelievably arrogant. The beggars seem to think they still own the world.

Educated, thoughtful, sophisticated NPR person: Well, they’re in a tight situation. A lot of people are gunning for them, and they have to protect themselves somehow. Extorting several trillion dollars from the government by threatening to bring the world economy crashing down was really the only card they had in their hand. I’d say that they’ve played it remarkably well.

This is a good example of the difference between the apodictic reading of a proposition and the problematological reading. From the apodictic point of view, the sophisticated person’s response is adequate. It looks at the face of the proposition itself and answers it based on its meaning, in the context of the tacit (apodictic) background assumptions of the person answering.

Problematologically, however, this response is wrong. The unexpressed context is misread, possibly deliberately*. That is to say, the question to which my statement was an answer was not recognized.

My statement was not answering the question “What would a normally rational, self-interested person do if they were caught leeching billions of dollars from their supposed employer during a period when they were making enormous blunders causing the enterprise to go bankrupt and collapse?”

The question my statement was answering was instead “Why do a few bankers need to be impaled and left out in the hot sun until they expire, in order to give the remaining bankers a clearer understanding of their new place in the world?”

Thus, the educated, thoughtful, sophisticated NPR person’s response was mistaken.

In my first statement, I had left out the context — i.e., had made an apodictic statement — because I had assumed that every normal human being thought as I did. I found this assumption not to be true when the sophisticated person responded as they did. However, responding directly to the sophisticated person’s clueless statement would have been a big mistake, since doing so would have involved me in a pointless, interminable argument about the wrong question. What I needed to do instead was to explicate the problematological context of my original statement, making it explicit rather than apodictic (assumed).

And that’s what I just did.

* “Possibly deliberately” is inexact. It is true that for skilled, self-aware quibblers and confusionists, deliberately misreading the problematology of a question is a primary tactic. However, the phrase “possibly deliberately” makes it seem that the other alternatives are innocent — merely  accidental, careless, or ignorant. This is not usually the case. For educated, thoughtful, sophisticated NPR persons, the particular sort of problematological misreading I just exhibited is second nature, part of the very structure of their being, and in fact is the difference defining their species. This particular sort of problematological misreading is essential:  whenever we see it, we know that we are talking to an educated, thoughtful, sophisticated NPR person.


This has been a very brief introduction to the philosophy of Michel Meyer. Rhetoric, Language, and Reason (Penn State, 1994) is a good, still short, but considerably longer introduction. It should be noted, however, that Meyer does not advocate impaling anyone.**

**Nor do I! This has been a purely hypothetical example used entirely for the purpose of exhibiting an instance of problematological confusion. Naive commonfolk dabbling in philosophy customarily fixate on the arbitrary example and miss the real point — another instance of problematological error. They have to realize that the fat man and the trolley car are merely constructions of the mind and do not actually exist, and that the truth being expressed is on the higher, transcendent plane.

One well may wonder how Meyer feels about the fact that his most enthusiastic internet disciple is a scurrilous political polemicist.

Felix Salmon (via Brad DeLong):

The damage was foreseeable and, in fact, foreseen. In 1998, before Li had even invented his copula function, Paul Wilmott wrote that “the correlations between financial quantities are notoriously unstable.” Wilmott, a quantitative-finance consultant and lecturer, argued that no theory should be built on such unpredictable parameters. And he wasn’t alone. During the boom years, everybody could reel off reasons why the Gaussian copula function wasn’t perfect. Li’s approach made no allowance for unpredictability.

From this and other scattered things I’ve read, this sounds like a fatal organizational problem, ascribable to  managerial bad judgment culpably motivated by greed and toxic optimism.

The finance people couldn’t understand the math, or refused to, so they ignored the nitpicky warnings from the mathematicians. The quants may not have understood the economic and financial aspects, or maybe they also  just didn’t care, since they were having the best paydays of their lives. In any case, there was an enormous pathology at the quant-finance interface.

Everyone involved saw the bonus checks rolling in, and maybe they just decided that the problems with the Gaussian copula formula probably really weren’t very important, because of complexity or emergence or disseminated intelligence or consilience or the cosmic vortex or the Aquarian Age or the singularity or  some other reason which they also didn’t understand. Not their department. Nobody’s department.

And then BOOM! Half of everything was gone, and the joke was on us.

I don’t understand a bit of the math, but as it turned out, neither did they. Another joke on us!

I love the Three Stooges.


Should there be pee testing?

Atrios says (in response to this post at Obsidian Wings): But one day I hope this country grows up and recognizes that the fear that maybe someone is getting something I’m not and they don’t deserve shouldn’t be the primary philosophy of governance.

I’ve read two autobiographical books by Nobelist James Buchanan, a major figure in public choice economics and the brains behind Welfare Cadillac Republicanism, and there’s ample evidence that his primary philosophy of governance is exactly what Atrios was talking about. He came from a gentry family in a bigoted area of the former Confederacy, and he left the Democratic party in 1948 during the Dixiecrat rebellion. There’s plenty of evidence besides that, too.

The Welfare Cadillac meme is powerful propaganda because everyone can think of someone they know personally who a.) they hate, b.) is a moocher and a scrounge, and c.) benefits from a government program that many other, better people do not benefit from. It doesn’t have to be racist; it could be an acquaintance, neighbor, or even a relative. (This is the Republican politics of envy).

Because they’re very concrete and vivid, people like that are the ideal anti-welfare state poster children. They are especially useful for the anonymous, faceless scam artists systematically looting the government for much larger amounts of cash. (Public choice economists seem to have been infinitely less vigilant about looting by deregulation and privatization.)

The best way for Democrats to shunt this question aside would be to make examples of a lot of individuals in finance: make them famous, destroy their reputations forever, and repeat a simple story line over and over again for weeks on end, as though they were so many OJ Simpsons.

Of course, that could never happen. First, all of the media are owned by malefactors of great wealth. Second, the Democratic Party itself is owned by malefactors of great wealth. And third, it would be populist to do something like that, and Hofstadter has taught all good Democrats that populists are Nazis.

So we’ll have to make do with the second-best plan, which is to trust ourselves to the “shit happens” theory of history and hope that things turn out well.

“I guess we should nationalize the banks after all”,  said Greenspan. “Recent events have been very interesting and unexpected. They’ve certainly surprised me, but of course, if you know what the answers are going to be, you don’t need to do the experiment.”

“I’m reminded of a story about Thomas Edison’s early attempts to come up with the lightbulb”, he went on. “Edison had tried a thousand different elements, and all had failed. A colleague asked him if he felt his time had been wasted, since he had discovered nothing. ‘Hardly,’ Edison answered. ‘I have discovered a thousand things that don’t work.’ ”

“So Jeffrey Sachs does one experiment in Russia and finds one thing that doesn’t work, and Domingo Cavallo does another experiment in Argentina and finds another thing that doesn’t work, and the Mont Pelerin Society does another experiment in Iceland and finds yet another thing that doesn’t work, and it’s all good! We’re all contributing to the same  research program. It’s just part of the march of science.”

“If we’re allowed to continue our work, without interference from Luddites and know-nothings, sooner or later we’ll certainly find something that works.  There’s never been a better time to be an economist than right now!”

Instead of a Finance Czar, who’d inevitably be bamboozled by his evil court, I propose a roving band of unruly Finance Cossacks to wreak havoc on the sorry ass of Finance. This could have a sort of Roman Circus effect, reducing the possibility of social disorder by distracting the newly unemployed and homeless, who instead of grumbling about their own problems would be rejoicing about other people’s problems.

These would have to be semi-professional New Reform Cossacks trained to make no ethnic distinctions whatsoever during their rampages. (If they were completely professionalized, however, they’d lose much of their effectiveness. Rampaging and havoc are more art than science and can’t really be routinized or adequately described by written protocols.)

One of the hard things about modern finance, from a Cossack’s point of view, is that it’s so abstract that it’s almost impossible to plunder. Beyond the fact that a lot of finance is bankrupt anyway, it’s not like the Cossacks could carry off billions of dollars worth of tranches or commercial paper and monetize it. They’d have to be salaried, and incented with a system of bounties and bonuses.

Sure, we can expect these Finance Cossacks to take over the executive power sooner or later, the way the mostly-Turkish Mamluk soldier-slaves took over in Egypt. Hopefully they’ll be a little better than our present rulers, but who knows? I say go for it.

U.S. judges admit to jailing children for money:

Two judges pleaded guilty on Thursday to accepting more than $2.6 million from a private youth detention center in Pennsylvania in return for giving hundreds of youths and teenagers long sentences…..

When someone is sent to a detention center, the company running the facility receives money from the county government to defray the cost of incarceration. So as more children were sentenced to the detention center, PA Childcare and Western PA Childcare received more money from the government, prosecutors said.

Teenagers who came before Ciavarella in juvenile court often were sentenced to detention centers for minor offenses that would typically have been classified as misdemeanors, according to the Juvenile Law Center, a Philadelphia nonprofit group…..

One 17-year-old boy was sentenced to three months’ detention for being in the company of another minor caught shoplifting.

Others were given similar sentences for “simple assault” resulting from a schoolyard scuffle that would normally draw a warning, a spokeswoman for the Juvenile Law Center said.

The Constitution guarantees the right to legal representation in U.S. courts. But many of the juveniles appeared before Ciavarella without an attorney because they were told by the probation service that their minor offenses didn’t require one.

Marsha Levick, chief counsel for the Juvenile Law Center, estimated that of approximately 5,000 juveniles who came before Ciavarella from 2003 and 2006, between 1,000 and 2,000 received excessively harsh detention sentences….

This horrifying but unsurprising story raises a lot of specific political questions: about judicial corruption, the war on crime, the war on drugs, civil rights, civil liberties, our increasingly authoritarian legal system, the for-profit prison industry, the political influence of prison-guard unions, and the racism of a growth industry paying mostly-white people to restrict the freedom of mostly-black people.

But it also raises a question more important than any of these, or all of them put together: what has America become? The story above sounds like something that happened under colonial rule, or in a corrupt third world country, or in an authoritarian dictatorship. But it happened in America.

And neither the Republican Party nor the Democratic Party wants to change anything. The Republicans think that our present system is fine. (They caught the bad judges, didn’t they? And we need to be tough on crime!). And the Democratic Party leadership, at best, refuses to touch these questions. We need to be tough on crime!

That’s why it feels good to be a troll now instead of a Democrat.

When George W. Bush said “America doesn’t torture”, when everyone knew that America does torture, everybody understood what he meant. He was like the enforcer waving a baseball bat saying “I hear you’ve been going around calling me a thug. I’m not a thug, OK?” Bush’s smirky taunts were one of the things that most endeared him to his authoritarian base. What he was telling us was “Whatcha think you’re gonna to do about it, buddy?”

It’s true that when some people say “America doesn’t torture”, they mean something entirely different.  What they’re saying is “Yes, America is torturing right now, but that’s not the real America.” And if this affirmation is accompanied by an active determination to put a stop to American torture, this is a perfectly fine bit of aspirational rhetoric. But if nothing really changes, it just becomes denial and bad faith.

I came of age in 1967, and more than half the time since then Nixon, Reagan, or George W. Bush has been President. All three of them did a lot of harm, and the damage done by Nixon and Reagan was never even half undone by their successors. Nobody knows what will happen under Obama, but he doesn’t seem to be setting his sights very high, and those of us who supported him are at risk of helping ratify George W. Bush’s transformation of America — by setting our own sights too low, and by pretending that the small victories we end up winning are much bigger than they really are.

We really have to consider the possibility that America has been transformed, and that Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush are what America really is now. A significant chunk of normal Americans would laugh gleefully at the story I posted, under the assumption that it was black kids who were being put in jail.  Many other normal Americans would automatically claim, without any  evidence, that this event was a rare exception and just a single incident. Only a minority of Americans would be willing to acknowledge the terrible significance of the episode. Bad governments make bad people, and conversely.

Many citizens of other states do realize how bad things are here. Maybe America has become unexceptional, just one state among all the others. Maybe, as so many states have done before,  we’re becoming one of the bad guys of history.

And if the U.S. goes into economic decline while militarily remaining the most powerful nation the world has ever seen (as seems very possible) — what happens then?

It is not impossible that it should fall to the lot of this work, in its poverty and in the darkness of this time, to bring light into one brain or another–but, of course, it is not likely.

My mission to the liberals, which may not have been an entire failure, has come to an end. With the election of Barack Obama, we have reached the limit of what’s possible in our sophisticated post-popular world. Between the Mitch McConnell right and the Chuck Schumer left, our President has found the vital Arlen Specter center.

The mission began began in the dark days of 2002, when Bush had 80% support and the big names in the blogosphere were Ann Coulter, Andy Sullivan, Mickey Kaus, and the inimitable Instapundit. Bush’s intentions were evident from the beginning, at least to me, and for three years he would have a free hand. The Democrats obviously needed help at that time, and I did what I could to comfort them, cheer them up, and convince them to oppose Bush out loud and in public. Gradually, as the international order and global economy collapsed into ruins, the political situation improved, and one by one the liberal hawks slunk back to the world of sanity. Finally in 2006 the Democrats gained control of Congress*, and then last year they won the Presidency.

During all those years I placed myself on the far left of the Democratic Party, either providing them with someone to be less extreme than, or tactfully trying to pull them a little further in my direction. Only seldom did I tell people go fuck themselves. But the tactfulness part finally became wearing, as did the endless toothpulling arguments required, and now I’m laying down my weary load.

Hoping for a popular left movement is like waiting for King Arthur to return in glory. It has been shown by Richard Hofstadter and others that popular movements are always fascist or Communist, and the Democrats have gotten the message. In order to protect us against extremism, they have bravely volunteered to be attacked as Communists themselves, in lieu of the now-extinct real Communists — without, however, relaxing their own anti-Communist vigilance.

The Left is in power, and I am no longer needed. I will return to my customary irresponsibility, and cheerfully curse the darkness to the end of my days.

*By counting the members of the two parties in the two Houses of Congress in 2007, this can be shown to be true.

My understanding of “too big to fail” is: Tom and Daisy always win. Tom and Daisy are ontologically necessary, like gravity or the conservation of matter and energy: someone has to smash up things and creatures and then retreat back into their money or their vast carelessness. The problem is that too often we think of this as contingent and are borne back ceaselessly into the past.