Sunday, February 19, 2017


I've been reading the current print edition of Nautilus, which contains an article by Michael Lewis titled "Bias in the ER." The medical doctor, Don Redelmeier, became interested in the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman on cognitive distortions and found that doctors are subject to the same errors as others and frequently misdiagnose patients. This was reassuring to me since I have avoided doctors for most of my life and hope to do so in the future. I also know people who have self-diagnosed and self-treated conditions that doctors were unable to identify. Apparently it is not uncommon for medical doctors to make extremely poor decisions.

For obvious reasons, I have been thinking recently about the competence of politicians. In the current literature about Trump, there are theories regarding the causes of his recent behavior that range from narcissistic personality disorder to early dementia to syphilis, but you don't necessarily need to find an exotic explanation in his case. I think that he is behaving much as he always has and has probably been incompetent outside a very narrow range of situations for most of his life. As far as I can tell, he was never particularly bright but was able to compensate for this by cultivating a veneer of success and by aggressively confronting his adversaries. He is a perfect of example of an alpha male who succeeds by intimidation where more competent people often fail. You might even say in this instance that Trump was elected by his fellow stupid alpha males who also think that they know more than they actually do.

The sad thing is that, because of general human incompetence, there is no alternative hero on the horizon who might rescue us from Trump. Think for a moment about Barack Obama. He was more cerebral than Trump and carefully mulled over his decisions, but that was not enough to make him an effective or memorable president. He inadvertently alienated the voters who prefer Trump's style, and while doing so he was unable to propose or implement ideas that might have set the country on a sustainable path to prosperity and equality. Obama's problem was that he looked, acted and thought like a neoliberal college professor, and his worldview was in some respects just as biased and limited as Trump's. The job of president is difficult, and it is probably too difficult for anyone to execute well at this stage in our civilization.

Besides the above reading, I watched a depressing but sobering French film called "The Measure of a Man," starring Vincent Lindon. It depicts a middle-aged married man who has a handicapped son and is struggling to find a job. His financial counselor advises him to take out a life insurance policy as a solution to his unemployment – he may die but at least his family would be provided for. He ends up as a store detective and hates it. The film clearly shows that the way the store is managed dehumanizes everyone, regardless of race or ethnicity, both customers and employees, and is a better indictment of capitalism than one is likely to find in any American film. There has been a popular undercurrent in France that is sympathetic with communist rule, but nothing of that nature exists on any scale in the U.S. Ironically – and accurately – this film depicts the outcome of capitalism as similar to the dreaded communist outcome that Americans have been taught to fear through indoctrination since the 1950's. American politicians in both major parties are so far behind the curve that all they can do is mindlessly repeat how capitalism and liberty are the solution to all of the world's problems. Clearly they are not. Conceptually, Trump isn't entirely different from Obama or Hillary Clinton.

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