“Novotna produced one of the defining sporting moments of the 1990s when she stumbled in sight of victory against Steffi Graf, and then dampened the Duchess of Kent’s shoulder with her tears.”
This episode was inspired by an article I read about the race to develop artificial intelligence. It reminded me of a story that I heard about Jospeh Heller, which got me thinking about the concept of enough.
freedom, books, flowers, and the moon
Hi, this is Jaime Escuder. And welcome to another episode of None Sense.
I read a headline this morning and it reminded me of something, a story that I once heard about Kurt Vonnegut. And so, I’m gonna talk to you about all of that.
Here’s the headline, “Tech Giants Are Paying Huge Salaries for Scarce A.I. Talent: Nearly all big tech companies have an artificial intelligence project. And they are willing to pay experts millions of dollars to help get it done.”
Okay. And here is the Vonnegut story. This is Vonnegut speaking.
“True story, Word of Honor: Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer, now dead, and I were at a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island. I said, ‘Joe, how does it make you feel to know that our host only yesterday may have made more money than your novel Catch 22 has earned in its entire history?’ And Joe said, ‘I’ve got something he can never have.’ And I said, ‘What on earth could that be, Joe?’ And Joe said, ‘The knowledge that I’ve got enough.'”
This podcast today is going to be about the idea of enough.
Enough is something that people really don’t do. We are avaricious and greedy. Most of us are demented, as Walt Whitman said, “with the mania of owning things.” This is why Imelda Marcos had over 1,200 pairs of shoes. This is why a guy named Dan Burnham spent $248,000 on a tree house for his grandkids. “Adorable and worth every penny,” said Mr. Burnham.
And we are rapacious.
This is a thing that we do: we develop technologies, and then we abuse them. There used to be, think about this, 30 million buffalo in North America. Do you know how many un-hybridized buffalo there are in America right now? There’s a general population of 500,000. So, down from 30 million to 500,000. That’s an astonishing decline. [98.4%] But of those, you know how many are un-hybridized, meaning the actual buffalo that were here originally? 8,000. [0.026%]
Here’s another example. Did you know that the United States used to be the largest producing caviar exporter in the world? And that the caviar was of exceptionally high quality? This is from a website I found on the history of caviar. This is the quote, “There was so much American caviar being produced in North America at the time (so around the turn of the 20th century) that bars would serve the salty delicacy to encourage more beer drinking, as peanuts are served today.” At the turn of the 19th century, there was more caviar going to Europe from North America than from Russia. At that time, there were roughly 4 million pounds of sturgeon being harvested from the Great Lakes per year and now, virtually gone.
I’m mentioning this because it’s the concept…it’s the idea that we don’t accept the concept of enough, as Joseph Heller did, that causes us to do things like fracking. And it’s also the idea that we don’t accept the fact that we have limitations, that we cannot be trusted with these technologies as we develop them that causes us to create things like nuclear weapons, which we then do things like leave them unguarded. They’ve been flown across the country by accident. [Same incident.] They’ve been overbuilt. We have…there’s something like 4,000 nuclear weapons in the American arsenal.
The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 22, 2016
[For the record, that tweet above is sheer madness.]
And more than that, not only have we built too many of them, we built far too powerful of them. The bomb that was dropped in Hiroshima killed 80,000 people instantly. And yet there was a bomb in Arkansas, and there’s a show about this, an American experience called “Command and Control” where this nuclear weapon almost detonated in Arkansas. And it was 600 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. Just think about the folly of even developing one such weapon, let alone thousands of those weapons, and that’s what we’ve done.
And why am I thinking about this in relation to this article I read about tech companies just in a race to develop artificial intelligence? And the reason is, this is another technology, even more so possibly, some people think that nuclear weapons that is completely capable of destroying us. And rather than acting with circumspection and hesitation and restraint, you have one company. Google’s Deep Mind, which is their A.I. arm, paying on average $375,000 per employee to develop this stuff.
Now, I know that there are potentially lots of wonderful benefits to A.I. There are medical benefits. There’s the whole self-driving cars thing. And most importantly, and let’s not forget this, there is the fact that it’s going to make some people incredibly rich. But there are also risks. For example, there’s a famous example given by a guy named Nick Bostrom who’s done a lot of thinking about the risks of A.I. It’s called the paperclip maximizer example.
And he wrote a paperback in 2003, in which he said this, “It seems perfectly possible to have a superintelligence,” and that’s what we’re talking about with the development of A.I. because we have A.I. now. It’s in our phones. For example, when you take a picture of someone on your phone and there’s that little box that identifies the person’s face, well that’s A.I. at work. We already have A.I. that you can literally hold in the palm of your hand.
But what these companies and that’s not enough. I get that’s the point of what I’m saying. We already have A.I. but they have decided that that’s not enough. They want super intelligent A.I. And Bostrom says, “It seems perfectly possible to have a superintelligence whose sole goal is something completely arbitrary, such as to manufacture as many paperclips as possible. And who would resist with all its might any attempt to alter this goal with the consequence that it starts transforming first all of earth, and then increasing portions of space into paperclip manufacturing facilities.”
In this example, let’s say we think we’re doing something innocuous. We just wanna test the A.I., and we decide to give it the task of manufacturing paperclips. And it determines, “Great, I’m gonna make as many as possible.” And I’m not a scientist and I’m not a biologist. I don’t know. I’m just making stuff up here because I’m not super intelligent. But it could easily decide, “You know, the best atmosphere for paperclip manufacture is a carbon-rich atmosphere. There’s too much oxygen in this atmosphere.” So, it acts to cut down all the trees. Destroy all the trees, or it decides, “People are actually in the way of my paperclip production. I need to get rid of them,” or it decides, “We need lots of water to make paperclips.” And so it starts polluting the water. We can’t even predict what it might do.
When do we ever stop and acknowledge the fact that we actually cannot be trusted with technology? Because if we could, then maybe, there would still be, some buffalo around. When do we stop and say the average lifespan right now is 80 years and that’s enough? When do we stop and say, “It’s okay for me to drive myself? That’s enough.” Is it not reasonable to say that any technology that has the potential of destroying all civilization? That’s too much.
There’s a guy named Kenneth Boulding. He was an economist. He was a lot of things. He was a real polymath. He was an economist, and a poet, and everything. In 1966, he wrote a paper called “The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth.” He said, “We need to start rethinking about our planet, and we need to re-imagine it from an open system to a closed system.” And he called these the differences between a cowboy economy and a spaceman economy. He said, “The cowboy economy was symbolic of the illimitable plains, and also associated with reckless, exploitative, romantic, and violent behavior. But the closed economy of the future, which we can call the spaceman economy, we have to think about the earth as becoming a single spaceship without unlimited reservoirs of anything. Either for extraction or for pollution and in which, therefore, man must find his place in a cyclical, ecological system.”
Before we develop certain technologies, let’s say, for example, fracking. It was okay to dig around in the earth and take out as much as we could, because we couldn’t possibly take everything or, for example, before we developed the rifle. It was okay to hunt as many buffalo as possible because it was just not possible to kill 30 million individual buffalo. But when the railroads came, and the rifle came, and all of these things came, it was possible and we did it.
As we stand now on the cusp of another thing that we’re frantically developing, A.I., and we’re not even pausing at all to look at how it potentially really could destroy us all. I wish there was more discussion of what enough is. Oscar Wilde said, “With freedom, books, flowers and the moon, who could not be happy?”
Unfortunately, it seems like, there’s a lot of people. And I think the reason is they’re not looking at the things that they have already. Because if they did, they would see that really, it is enough. And the other thing is they only look at the possible benefits of the thing, never considering that the negatives are real and also likely.
I wanna go back to Nick Bostrom for a minute. He has this other interesting idea called the great filter. He was thinking about why we have not found any signs of extraterrestrial life. And he has a simple idea. And the idea is the reason we haven’t found any is because none of it exists. And the reason it doesn’t exist is because at some point in the development of all intelligent life, it’s possible that they must invent something that leads to their destruction. “It’s not far-fetched,” he says, “to suppose that there might be some possible technology which is such that A, virtually all sufficiently advanced civilizations eventually discover it and B, its discovery leads almost universally to existential disaster.”
Now, it’s my belief that most likely the discovery of nuclear weapons is that thing for mankind. I think it’s just incredibly lucky that in the decades since we discovered nuclear weapons, there has not been some catastrophic, cataclysmic thing that’s happened, that’s led to just the destruction of all life. If it’s not nuclear weapons, there is at least the possibility that it is artificial intelligence, a thing that we are rushing headlong into the development of. And maybe, just maybe, the mere possibility that it is that ought to be enough for us to say enough.
Thank you as always for listening.
In this episode, I explain why I believe that packing the courts with conservative jurists, as Trump and McConnell plan to do, will cause us to lose our rights.
I also talk about John Rawls and Alexander Hamilton. What do they have in common? They both think that you shouldn’t make rules for other people without expecting them to apply to yourself. Also, they both liked rap.
(Actually, I’m not so sure about that rap thing.)
My solution to the gun violence problem. (It’s not what you think.)
CORRECTION: In this episode, I claim that the population density of Cook County, Illinois is 9,000 people per square mile. This is incorrect. It’s about 5,500 per square mile. My claim that Brewster County’s population density is 1.3 people per square mile was closer. It’s actually 1.5.
Transcript (by speechpad.com):
Hi. This is Jaime Escuder. Welcome to another episode of None Sense.
Let’s talk about guns.
You know, I don’t really wanna talk about guns, but guns seems to be a particular problem in my country in that we have these endless horrible mass shootings that keep happening over and over again. And I think maybe we ought to talk about why. (I know that the gun debate is not something that’s at all new but I think it’s important. And I haven’t really waited on it and so I’m gonna do that.)
I’m gonna do that by starting off with a surprise. And this is the surprise, I’m a very liberal … well, this is not the surprise … I’m a very liberal person. Super liberal. I think that … I mean, if I could wave my magic wand, I would legalize virtually every victimless crime, so prostitution, drug use, whatever. I think we live in a far too criminalized society. America is an over-criminalized, “overruled,” I like to say, country. And I’m very liberal in that way and I think that people should just be allowed to do stuff so long as there’s not a victim.
And when I talk like that, people naturally assume that I’m a Democrat, which is true. And, of course, every Democrat is a big proponent of gun control, right? Well, not me. I’m actually not a big gun control guy and this is very surprising to people who, after they get to know me a while when they learn this about me, it’s a shock to them and it’s somewhat disappointing to them. So I wanna explain why, and then maybe because, yes, I’m a Democrat but I’m not a big gun control Democrat, those of you who are skeptical of what I’m about to say might be a little bit more willing to listen.
So, I’m not a gun control guy, number one, because I like freedom. I think people should be allowed to do stuff. And I think one of those things is if you wanna be a gun collector or own guns, I can understand why you would wanna do that. Guns are actually pretty amazing machines if you think about it. They don’t require batteries or electricity, they just kind of harness the laws of physics and chemistry to function and that’s a rare thing.
And I’m not a gun owner, I’m not a gun nut, but I can see, you know, it’s a rare thing, it’s a rare instrument that sort of functions merely out of alignment with the laws of nature. And a gun does and that’s kind of amazing and so I could see how, for historical reasons and just kind of neat mechanical reasons, why people might wanna own guns. And more importantly, even if couldn’t see that, I just think people should be allowed to be free in a free country and so one of the things you should be allowed to do is have guns.
The other thing is I’m not at all blind to the fact that guns have their uses. The police in these types of situations … there was just a mass shooting, like, I think I may have mentioned, in Las Vegas. I think the last count was 58 people dead … in these kinds of situations, so Sandy Hook or Virginia Tech etc., the police always get there too late. Now, that’s not to blame the police, there’s no way they could know it ahead of time but it’s gonna take them some minutes to get there. And if, in that time, the only person with a gun in a room full of people is the guy who’s killing people, that’s how you get to numbers like 58 people or whatever the number was at the Pulse Nightclub, dozens of people killed. So there’s a value I recognize to having guns in places where this is gonna happen.
And then the 3rd thing is, gun control is … even the very concept of gun control is completely ignorant of the fact that it absolutely will not work just in terms of the reality of the existence of guns in this country. I think there was an estimate I saw, there’s 300 million guns in this country. That’s actually more guns, there are actually more guns in the United States of America than there are people. Another article that I read was that the killer in Las Vegas used this thing called a “bump stock” which is something I never heard of before, but I guess it’s some sort of attachment or mechanism that you can attach to a gun. And that turns it essentially into a machine gun or a rapid-fire gun.
And so, now, there’s all sorts of talk about banning these things. And the article I read was essentially how they’re already selling out in anticipation of them being banned. Would-be owners are already buying them and they are already selling out. So who knows how many thousands or tens of thousands or millions of bump stocks are already out there even if you were to ban them? And so that’s one of the things, one of the mistakes that I think people in general make and that legislators like to pretend: that somehow legislating a fact changes the reality of that fact.
And they don’t.
Murder is illegal. It’s been illegal in this country ever since the beginning. I think it’s probably been illegal in every country all over earth. Guess what? At this very moment, there’s a murder happening somewhere. The mere outlawing of a thing doesn’t prevent it.
The mere banning of a gun isn’t gonna prevent guns from the flow of commerce any more than it prevents the flow of marijuana or any of the other drugs from commerce. So, there’s a dose of reality that has to be attached to the gun debate that I think is often missing in this whole legalize or ban guns debate that we’re having.
Having said that, I’m not ignorant at the fact that maybe there are some guns out there, in fact, there are some guns out there that maybe people really shouldn’t have, like these assault weapon type of guns. You know, I don’t want my neighbor, my neighbor shouldn’t be allowed to have a pet hippopotamus. I don’t think they should be allowed to be secretly building and even not so secretly building a nuclear bomb in their garage. Some things are just simply too dangerous. And I think certain types of guns certainly wouldn’t fit that description so I think the idea of having some sort of meaningful debate about what kinds of guns should be normally allowed in society is a good one to have.
And I also recognize that that’s not an easy debate or conversation to have and that we could have a whole, I could devote a whole show to that and not have any answers. And so I’m not gonna do that now, I’m gonna save that maybe for later, probably for never, but for today, I’m just gonna say that I’m not an outright ban all guns guy even though I’m probably the most liberal person that you’ve either met or never met.
A more important harder thing to do is to ask: why do these things keep happening? And if we accept that it’s not because, and I’m gonna talk more about this in a moment, it’s not just because there are guns in the world because as you know, there’s guns in other countries like Canada and yet they don’t have this problem.
Why does the United States have this problem? Let’s start first by analyzing the fact that these things are done by people who not only value the lives of others so little enough to kill them, but they also hate their own lives.
Because one thing that always happens to these cases is the person gets killed. This is going happen.
Actually, my understanding is that this guy in Las Vegas may have had some sort of escape plan or some sort of delusion that he was gonna escape. He didn’t, he was killed. And clearly, he must have known that that was a possibility.
So what is it in these people’s lives or what is it that’s lacking in these people’s lives that makes them decide, “I wanna die. I wanna kill people and then I wanna die.”
There’s a guy named Charlie Hoehn, who did a blog post, who suggested some possible reasons why this Las Vegas thing happened. And one is simply that maybe he was lonely. And I think that’s maybe a conversation, an important conversation that we need to have in this country. Former Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, actually said that loneliness is reaching an epidemic proportion in this country. And he wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review in which he said that 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely.
Now, actually, especially I think for men and I think I can say this because I am a guy, it’s not okay or acceptable or something that it feels safe to be able to go to anyone and say, “I’m lonely.” And yet we know that it exists and we know that many people have it and there’s many causes of it. And I think one of the causes of it is we take each other for granted. Even people that we have in our lives that we maybe see every day or are close to, we kind of don’t inquire into their feelings as people.
I have a little story about this. I live right now in far West Texas in a very sparsely populated part of the country. But I moved here from a place called Oak Park, Illinois, which is in Cook County, Illinois, which is where Chicago is. And it has a population density, Cook County does, of about 9,000 [correction: the actual number is abut 5,000] people per square mile. That’s a lot of people per square mile. And I lived in a building with other people. And I’m not, I’m just as guilty of this as anyone and I’m as much at fault as this is my neighbors, but the truth is, I really had no community there.
I didn’t know my neighbors. I literally did not know the name of the guy who lived upstairs from me, who I could hear walking around at night. I didn’t know the name of the guy who I shared a kitchen wall with. I don’t know what these people did for a living. I didn’t know if they were sick. I didn’t know if they were sad. And they didn’t know any of that about me. And I felt very isolated and alone in a building full of people. And part of it, as I said, is my fault because I didn’t reach out or, you know, extend the hand of welcome or whatever and I recognize that.
But the fact of the matter is, it was loneliness. I think you could say that it was loneliness. And it was loneliness even though I had a family and I had a job and all of that stuff. There was still a sense of that there.
We moved to Texas a very, like I say, a very sparsely populated part of Texas. I think the population density of Brewster County where I live now as opposed to Oak Park of Cook County was 9,000 people per square mile, I think the population density of Brewster is like, 1.3 or 3 people per square mile.
And yet, when we got here, my wife went to the bakery. She bought a loaf of bread and she had some other things. And I think she probably had the children with her, and so she forgot the loaf of bread at the store. Later that night, there’s a knock on the door and the baker is actually there. And she hands the bread to my wife, and she says, “You know, I think you forgot this. Here.” Now, I have no idea how she even knew where we lived, but she did. And she brought the bread over. And that is community.
And I wonder how many people in the United States…and I’m not…listen, I’m not making excuses for what this guy did, I mean, I’m not at all doing that. I’m just saying, we owe it to ourselves that we don’t, you know, go out to a concert or on the eL or something like that and get shot to death by someone who’s over-lonely. We owe it to ourselves to think about what are some of the possible causes. And I recognize, of course, mental illness is probably something significant. But maybe loneliness is a part of that, one of the possible causes of this, and I think we owe it to ourselves to ask, “Are we lonely?” Who around us might be lonely? What are we doing about that? And do we have the courage to admit that it’s a problem or a thing, if not in our own lives, in our country and very likely with someone that we know?
Here’s another reason, and this is related to loneliness, but I think it’s also distinct and this is where my, maybe some of my politics is gonna come out a little bit. But maybe he was depressed or maybe the people who do these things are depressed.
What are some of the reasons, in the United States, someone might be depressed? What about the fact that maybe we don’t wanna talk about it or openly acknowledge it or it’s too scary to admit, but the simple fact that we no longer live in a true democracy, that we, the people living in the United States right now, live in an oligarchy?
There’s something called the happiness, I think it’s called “The Happiness Report” and it’s put out every year. It’s a rating of happiness from different countries, and the United States has been consistently dropping in these happiness ratings every year. And there’s a chapter in the latest report and you’ll find the link to the report in my show notes. And I think I’ve said this in other episodes, but my show notes are always very comprehensive and everything that I reference in my actual Podcast, you can find the link in the show notes. But there’s a chapter devoted to American happiness or American depression in there.
And this is something that comes right from there. And I’m quoting now. It says, “There is a strong and correct feeling among Americans that the government does not serve their interest, but rather the interest of powerful lobbies, wealthy Americans, and, of course, the politicians themselves.” And then they further note that Political Scientists such as Martin Gilens have shown that “only rich Americans have real input into political decision making.”
I looked into that a little bit more and I looked into who Martin Gilens is, and it turns out there is a New Yorker article discussing his work. And one of the quotes from his papers, this comes from Mr. Gilens himself, “When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose.” In other words, numbers don’t really matter in this country, what matters is money. And that’s depressing.
Now, interestingly, or maybe not so interestingly, or dastardly, or, you know, depressingly itself because it seems maybe this isn’t even an explanation. Apparently, the guy in Las Vegas was very wealthy. But still, I don’t think we can ignore the fact that living in an oligarchy sucks unless you’re a member of the oligarchy. And even then, it sucks if you have any sort of conscience.
And it’s horribly depressing especially when you’re of a certain generation like I am, Gen X, etc., when you actually are watching the people’s grip over their leadership slip away and you feel powerless to do it, it’s depressing. I know this sounds maybe a strange thing to talk about in a gun control or how do we stop mass shootings kind of podcast. But I really do think that this is a majorly depressing thing that can get people upset and make people hate other people.
And I think we should look at maybe solutions and campaign finance reform, overruling Citizens United, ending the just disgraceful gerrymandering that is essentially completely undermining our democracy. I mean, I’m willing to say this, that doing those things, meaningful campaign finance reform, fair elections that you actually don’t feel disenfranchised from, that you actually feel like you have a say in, that would do more to prevent gun violence than banning guns. Because it will have an actual impact, an actual impact to the people who are living here and maybe won’t wanna kill themselves or others quite so much because they’re actually enjoying their lives a little bit more.
And I wanna talk about another reason, and perhaps the most important reason. And it is this, this is the 3rd reason.
We have lost our identity as a national community, as Americans. I don’t think that we really see each other as one country anymore, we see each other as whites and blacks, religious and non-religious, younger generation, older generation, wealthy, not wealthy, southern, northern, etc. And the fact of the matter is we’re not there for each other anymore. We don’t look out for each other. We don’t care about each other and we don’t take care of each other.
And it’s a fabric that’s being rent apart by our own carelessness towards our fellow Americans. And this has actually been proven through research. There’s a guy named Keith Hampton, Professor at Michigan State University who actually studies this. He studies something called “Helping Behavior” and he did two of these studies. One in 2001 and one in 2011. And he did them in the United States and in Canada.
And again, I will have a link to his actual paper in my show notes, but in short, in a nutshell, this was the experiment that he did. He left about 7,600 addressed and stamped letters in public places, both in Canada and the United States. And he measured the return of those letters.
In other words, someone is walking along and they see a letter on the ground or on a bench or in a phone booth and it’s clearly like someone lost it. And he checked to see how many people actually went to the minor hassle of placing it in a mailbox so that whoever it was intended for would actually receive it. In 2001, he found that 63% of the letters were returned and that’s both in Canada and in the United States. In 2011, when he did the test again, the number remained at 63% in Canada. However, the number fell to 53.4%, a 10% drop in the United States.
Since 9/11, we have gotten more distant from each other to the point where nearly half of us, think about this, nearly half of the people that you see on the street, if they see a letter that is clearly lost and has the stamp and the address on it, won’t even bother to pick it up and put it in the mailbox. They’ll just ignore it. We can do better. We must do better because I don’t know that any country, any national union can long last with that kind of apathy. And I really think that we’re wasting time and doing a poor service to each other and to the root of the problem and not doing the hard work when we just insist that banning guns is going to fix everything.
Here’s one more story. I live in a place right now that is swimming in guns, that is flooded with guns. When I first moved here, it was like an Oak Parker’s nightmare. I went to a…I think it was a fundraiser for a volunteer for the local fire department and there was an auction. And literally, every auction items was guns or whiskey. I never felt unsafe, nobody got shot. The place…I mean, they couldn’t… There was probably, again, more guns in that building than were people.
Now, we did have a shooting here in Alpine, Texas about a year ago at the high school. A girl brought a gun to school and according to the police, she was, I guess, she must have been depressed. That’s not according to the police, but I’m assuming based upon what happened. But she wanted to shoot her stepbrother. And when things didn’t go the way they were supposed to, someone walked in on her while she was loading the gun or something, she shot and killed herself. In other words, she was sad.
Now, let me ask you seriously, is that a shooting that happened because that girl had too many guns in her life? Or is it one that happened because she had too few friends?
Now, I don’t merely mean to point my finger at Liberals on this issue whom I disagree with saying, “Stop focusing on something that’s not actually the problem.” Conservatives, if anything, I’m more upset with them because they seem to understand that it’s not the problem but yet, they also keep to seem to pretend that it’s not gonna happen again and they don’t have any meaningful discussion as to what the problem actually is.
For example, overturning the oligarchy or passing campaign finance reforms that might make it harder for them and their rich friends to get elected. That’s hard work. But necessary work is often hard work.
I wanna leave you with this idea. There’s a great radio documentary that was actually put together by Glenn Gould who liked to study solitude and solitary people and see why they chose a solitary life. And the very first one of them is something called The Idea of North where he interviews a few, I think five Canadians who lived for a time in the extreme north of Northern Canada.
And there were a couple of interesting observations. One is that a lot of people go north to these remote places because they hope to get away from community, they wanna get away from people. And then they find themselves actually far closer to community than they ever imagined. I think I personally lived that when I left a county of, I don’t know, 3 million people for a county of 10,000 and then all of a sudden felt very much closer. And that’s because when there’s fewer, I guess, resources or people around, you realize that you really do need each other to get by.
And one of the other people that he interviewed commented on that by saying, You could tell when someone was depressed in the town because you saw them every day. And you would maybe make note of it and unannounced one day, knock on their door, say hello, maybe play a game of chess. “And right away, there was a sense of sharing this life.” And that really stuck with me because you know what? Whether you knock on their door or not, you are sharing this life with them. You are sharing this place, this planet, this moment. And by pretending that that’s not true or by pretending that that person isn’t there, you’re not doing anything other than maybe, making the situation worse. And you’re certainly not honoring the fact that people don’t simply cease to exist just because we ignore them.
So, participate in your community. Look around you and view this as a national community, which it is, and maybe if we can’t stop this gun violence outright, at least, maybe we can finally have a real conversation and get started. Because I don’t feel like we’ve made any progress on this issue and I think the only thing that’s separating us between this moment and the next mass shooting is time and luck. And guess what? Those both run out.
It’s time for us to take responsibility for what’s happening in our own country and think, and see the people around us. And when we see that they’ve dropped a letter, pick it up and mail it.
Thanks for listening.
This is my tribute to Tom Petty, who was great.
Hi, this is Jaime Escuder and welcome to None Sense.
Tom Petty has died.
When I heard that, I, of course, was sad because I liked Tom Petty. He seemed like a really, you know, honestly, a really cool guy. Like an original guy who was kind of uncompromising and just was who he was, and put out the music that he wanted to put out, and said what he wanted to say, and just seemed like the sort of guy who would just be a cool friend.
And so, when I first heard that news, there was sadness and a sense of loss, and there were really two feelings that I think, two things that I really felt that as I thought about him some more really kind of grow out of my identity as a member of Generation X, which is to say, someone, who is around 40 years old and who is now kind of entering what Jung called the “Afternoon of Life.”
The first thing that I thought about, that came to me, was the fact that the old guard that maybe we always thought would be here and that maybe we couldn’t really conceive of not being here, is leaving. Tom Petty is gone, Alan Rickman, David Bowie, Douglas Adams, Michael Jackson. I mean, I remember thinking not even be able to imagine a world without Michael Jackson, just thinking Michael Jackson to be around forever. But, guys, Madonna turns 60 next August. So what that really means is the old guard is gone and we are becoming the old guard. We are stepping into the role heretofore played by our parents. Which is to say we are becoming managers of the world.
Now, it doesn’t seem like it because baby boomers still very much seem to have the helm of the world, but that’s not going to last much longer. The truth is that one of the aspects of being in the afternoon of life is navigating the surprising and surreal effect of people that you always kind of relied upon or expected to be there disappearing and moving on. And perhaps the biggest example of that is as we enter our afternoon, our parents are entering their evening and even entering their night. In fact, I mean, both of my parents are actually older than Tom Petty was when he died. So that’s the first thing that hearing about this death made me feel. It’s a sort of terrifying sensation of being left to go it alone. I mean, we’re losing our guides, we’re losing our Obi-Wans, our Gandalfs, our Dumbledors. And we have been forced across the line of departure, like it or not, ready or not.
Now, there’s nothing unusual or unnatural about that. It’s a process that every single generation has to go through. It’s what our parents went through when their parents entered that phase. But when you are personally going through it, it changes things a little bit. It’s one thing to read about it or just to intellectually know that it’s something that happens or that it’s inevitable that it will happen to you. But when you’re actually doing it and you wake up in the morning and you read the news that Tom Petty is dead, it’s as I said, it’s terrifying and sad, and it’s a little unsettling.
And the second thing that struck me when I heard about Tom Petty is just sort of an evaluation of him as a person.
You know, you kind of maybe overlook certain people until you hear about that they’re gone and then when you hear about they’re gone you kind of wish you had maybe thought about them more or that it didn’t necessarily take their death to make you evaluate how much they meant to you in your life, but I guess that’s the reality of the way it is. And so as I look at Tom Petty, I mean, we’ve lost an artist, we’ve lost a singer of songs. I mean, I’ve read a couple of obituaries about him and they kind of mention how, like all great artists, he remained true to himself.
The Times obituary noted that even though he sold millions of albums and he headlined numerous shows, his songs stayed down to earth, as they said, “Carrying lyrics that spoke for underdogs and ornery outcasts.” I think that’s true and I think maybe that’s one of the reasons why I liked his songs so much.
There’s this line in the Rush song, Force Ten, that says, “Tough times demand tough songs,” and I remember hearing that line and thinking it was rather silly, I mean, tough times demand…I don’t know what they demand. But iron fists, or guns, or iron-willed, or just inability to fight or physical strength, or I don’t know, but songs?
But when I was a public defender and it was my job to defend poor people in court and to stand up against powerful people like judges and just the police and the whole institution in the whole criminal justice system, I often thought of Tom Petty’s song I Won’t Back Down. And it’s more than I thought about it, I relied upon it. And it actually…it kept me from, well, backing down. I mean, I know what’s right, you’re not gonna push me around, I won’t back down. And that song did make me tough. It made me very tough. And I did count on Tom Petty’s song to be tough and to be what I needed to be in the world and to not back down even if I was stood up against the gates of hell. It was…I felt like I was in it with someone.
The Japanese poet, Ishikawa Takuboku, published a series of poems that he called Poems to Eat. And I think about that title a lot, or Poems for Eating. I think about it a lot because, you know, poetry is something that nourishes us. It is something that fortifies us.
And that’s true of art, that’s true of songs. It’s like what William Carlos Williams said, “It’s difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”
And when I think about Tom Petty, and I have many fond memories of hearing, “I won’t back down” in my head, as I’m actually standing in the courtroom, maybe staring down a witness or a judge in the face and just hearing that and not backing down. It occurs to me that the song remains. That yes, the old guard is stepping away. But that’s not to say that they’re abandoning us.
We’re all in a boat out at sea. Tom Petty has sailed on. But he had a heart so big that he left behind some songs to keep us company as we move into the great wide open and take control of this world for a while. And for that, there’s really nothing else to say, but thanks.
And thanks for listening.
In this second episode of None Sense, I respond to the following statement by Michelle Goldberg: It’s a source of constant astonishment to me that the country has handed over the means to destroy civilization on this planet to an unhinged lunatic who lost the popular vote and was installed with the aid of a hostile foreign power. It’s such an epic institutional failure that it calls everything we thought we knew about this country’s stability into question.
What’s explained at length in the podcast is summarized like this: if we’re expecting institutions like the judiciary to save us from the Trump presidency, we’re doomed.
Hi, I’m Jaime Escuder and welcome to this second episode of None Sense.
Today, I’d like to talk about institutions, or rather the appearance of institutions. And I was led to this topic by something I read again in “The New York Times.”
Remember when someone asked Sarah Palin what her news sources were and she clearly had never read any news in her life because she couldn’t name a single, like, news outlet? So, forewarned, my news sources are as follows: “The New York Times,” “The New York Times,” “The New York Times,” “The Guardian,” you’re gonna be seeing a lot.
So, if you read my show notes, you’re gonna be seeing lots of links to New York Times articles and The Guardian articles. Also, NPR, although, I gotta tell you, NPR, the website, or the way they do their print journalism, and this may be just because they’re fundamentally an audio outlet, a radio outlet, their print is not so great, but the NPR and the BBC. Also, the “Washington Post.”
But my primary sources of news and this is because they’re well-thought out and I really believe they have integrity in the sense of, they don’t, well, there’s no fake news, I mean, they actually fact-check, etc.
And I actually personally know this to be true and I’m saying my main ones are “The New York Times” and “The Guardian,” and I know the “Washington Post” does and I’m sure the BBC, I know the BBC does, these are reputable news outlets. I’m not going to be, I’m not much of a “Fox News” reader because I think “Fox News” is terrible news, just junk, terrible, poor quality news.
I know that “The New York Times” does fact-checking because I was actually mentioned in an article once that appeared in “The New York Times” and I remember being called by the fact-checker and asked to verify the quotes that had been attributed to me and things like that.
So, I was reading “The New York Times” as I want to do and there was an interview with a new columnist there named Michelle Goldberg, here’s a quote from Michelle Goldberg (and I will have a link to this article in my show notes): “It’s a source of constant astonishment to me that the country has handed over the means to destroy civilization on this planet to an unhinged lunatic who lost the popular vote and was installed with the aid of a hostile foreign power. It’s such an epic institutional failure that it calls everything we thought we knew about this country’s stability into question.”
And what gave me pause about that, what made me think about that was that this person, Michelle Goldberg, who’s apparently, obviously, very intelligent, highly educated, very thoughtful person, is acting as though she actually, not only believes in institutions and that they exist and that they actually function, but that they have the ability or the will to function when in fact there really is no such thing as an institution. There’s just people and then there’s an edifice that we put in front of those people to inspire awe or fear or reverence in the hope that they’ll obey whatever comes from the institution, but there really is no such thing as an institution, unless the people who populate it have integrity and character and are all of the things that would function well in a society even if they weren’t associated with an institution.
So, I want to talk about what I think is probably the most important institution in a democracy and in our government, and one of the most visible and one of the least understood, and one of the best at creating an aura of importance and wisdom and almost, sort of, above the foreignness but is at the same time the worst at actually being that and as an, in actual fact a very manipulable, weak and unreliable institution and I’m talking about the judiciary. When I talk about the judiciary, you know, the judicial branch, out of necessity, has done a marvelous job of creating this veneer that I was speaking about of majesty and, sort of, arising from another place, a place of governance and inhumanity in the sense of almost being, like, a natural force, so let’s, like, look at a courthouse, for example.
You know, a federal courthouse can be a very imposing building, you go inside and it’s a very intimidating place, there’s gonna be marble and just the very architecture of the courtroom. The judge comes out and he’s gonna be on an elevated thing, everyone, just by nature of the architecture, or she’s gonna be on an elevated thing, is gonna be required to look up, actually physically look up as though you’re looking up…like many churches are designed, they wear the black robe which creates an air of inscrutability and I think correctly, dignity and then there’s all these, sort of, processes, you know, there’s a big knock on the door before the judge comes in and everyone is supposed to stand and there’s all this pomp and all this stuff.
And it’s a very, as I say, it’s a very intimidating imposing cultural, by design, cultural experience walking into a courtroom. When I say cultural, I mean that a courtroom has a certain culture and the entirety of the culture is designed to make you feel minimal so that the person walking in gets the sense that they are entering an alien world which they don’t fully understand, and in which they posses very little power. And the other part of it is, it’s designed to make one believe that the pronouncements that come from the judge and that the judge, the person of the judge, his or herself is almost of another spiritual plane and of a higher order of wisdom.
Now, the truth is, all judges are actually people and I’d like to tell a couple of stories to, kind of, illustrate the way I think the reality of the judicial system in opposition to the way it presents itself, and then get back to Miss Goldberg’s’ statement about how it’s, how the election of Donald Trump and his continued debasement of the office of the President of the United States constitutes an institutional failure. And I think she’s just expecting too much of the institution itself and then I want to talk about why the people in the institution of the judiciary, in particular, are failing.
All right, the first example comes from, and I hesitate to admit this because I’m not an Ayn Rand fan at all, in my angry youth, stupid youth, I read all her stuff and was highly influenced by it but I don’t subscribe to any of it anymore. But this was a useful story that I believe came out of the beginning of Atlas Shrugged and it’s a story about one of the characters, he grows up and there’s a certain tree in his yard or in his parents’ farm or whatever that was a very big, strong oak tree and he used to play on it and he used to climb it, etc., etc.
Well, one day, it was strucked by lightning and the entire tree collapsed and he went over to the tree, shocked, that something that appeared to be so robust and long-lived and vibrant and vigorous would have collapsed so easily. And he saw that, in fact, the tree had been rotten from the inside out and was hollow on the inside, and so the outside appeared to be healthy and strong but in fact the tree was diseased and on the brink of collapse.
The second story and I don’t really quite remember where I heard this one, maybe it’s not even true but I think it’s a good analogy, is the story of a guy who got on the New York subway system with one of those long fluorescent lights, like, one of those ones you see in an office building that looks like a pole on a subway pole to keep you from falling over. So, he gets on with one of these lights and then someone else gets on thinking that in fact it is a pole and grabs it and holds on to it. Now, even though in point of fact the thing, the pole wasn’t attached to anything it was completely unsafe, it was just the one guy holding it.
And then before the guy knew what was going on, several people had gotten onto the subway and grabbed hold of this thing and finally when he gets to his stop where he’s supposed to throw the light off, he doesn’t know what to do or how to tell the people that in fact they’re not, what they’re holding onto and that what they think is a stabilizing force in their lives is in fact nothing but a light that’s going to collapse, that could collapse at any moment. He simply just lets go of the light and then gets off the train, leaving the unsuspecting unaware people holding the pole which is not actually a poll and which is actually not at all anything that’s safe or can be relied upon.
So, I think those two examples the thing that appears to be strong on the outside but is in fact very tenuous and not at all what it appears to be in terms of strength, that’s the judiciary. And I’m going to give you a couple of examples and in order to understand these examples, you actually have to understand the role that the judiciary is supposed to play in our government and that is in fact the role of the pole in the subway system. In other words is supposed to be something that you can actually rely upon or count upon to keep essentially you and the ship of state upright in times of turmoil and turbulence.
Now, how do we know that in fact it’s not doing that? I have a case and a name, so the first, the case is Bush v Gore. Bush v Gore was a political decision. That’s, kind of, really the worst possible insult I can hurl at any court and, of course, I’m talking about the United States Supreme Court. But the one thing that courts are not supposed to be and cannot be if there are to maintain their role and a functioning democracy is political. They are supposed to do the right thing even when it’s not popular. They are always supposed to do what’s right and never what’s easy again, to quote Dumbledore and if you’ve listened to the previous episode, you know, I kind of, I’m a big Harry Potter fan.
When they must choose between doing what’s right and what’s easy, they must always do what’s right and they must never act out of their own personal interest and by that, I mean, the judges own personal interest. And yet, Bush v Gore was a case that was decided because the way it was decided handing the president, the presidency to George W. Bush. It was decided simply because there was a majority of Republicans conservatives on the Supreme Court as opposed to a minority of Democrats and the court voted along political lines and gave the presidency to the candidate that the majority of Justice has wanted to see in the White House. And the fact that he had lost the popular vote didn’t matter, the fact that the Florida Supreme Court had decided differently and that there’s a long line of cases that say that the federal government isn’t supposed to involve themselves in matters of state law, etc. I’m not going into all the nuances of that.
But the point is, the Supreme Court should never have taken the case, if it was a real court, it should never even have heard the case and certainly it shouldn’t have had, have decided that the way that it did. Now, if you try to read the Bush v Gore opinion, of course, that’s not going to be spelled out in there, it’s not going to say, we find that George W. Bush won the presidency because I, Antonin Scalia, like the idea of having him as president, he’s the President for me and go George. It’s not going to say that because courts are not supposed to be political actors which, which it was. And so it’s couched in all sorts of legal language that any person really would struggle to understand and it’s because it’s not really the language that was used to decide the case. So, it’s a very inscrutable case that’s easily understood in the sense that it was a political decision.
Now, I’m not the only one to say that the Supreme Court is a political court, there’s a famous judge who just announced his retirement, another federal judge named Richard Posner, who himself said that the United States Supreme Court is not a real court, it’s a political court.
The second example that I want to give as to why the courts as an institution are unreliable, is a guy named Neil Gorsuch. If we had a legitimate court system in this country, if we had a legitimate process that led to the nomination of judges, Neil Gorsuch would not at all be on the court right now. Instead, the court would be populated with a guy the most recent nominee would be, justice would be a guy named Merrick Garland.
There’s supposed to be a process by which people become Federal judges and Supreme Court judges, you’re nominated by the president and then you’re sent on to the Federal courts, sort of, with the advice and consent of the Senate. Of course Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland nearly a year, his nomination was pending, a guy named Mitch McConnell who’s a senator from Kentucky and a very un-American person, held up that nomination forever so that after the election, a Democrat would lose the election and then of all people, Donald Trump, decides who gets to be on the United States Supreme Court. And that guy happen to be Neil Gorsuch, who absolutely has no legitimacy as a justice because of the situation and the process by which he was sent to the court and this is how it is in America.
And yet we are counting on these courts to do things that are going to make them unpopular which is in fact their job, it is their role as I say, to do the unpopular thing even when it’s not the easy thing to do. And we’re counting on them to do that role and I am telling you that as an institution, we can, the only thing we can count on them doing is failing and there’s two reasons for that. The first is the one that I already gave you, which is that the court has been packed with political actors who are not going to decide the cases with integrity but are only going to decide the cases in accordance with their own personal beliefs. In other words, who are going to fail as judges and we know this is going to happen because of cases like, for example, Bush v Gore.
The second reason is this, there’s a dirty little secret with regard to the federal judiciary that judges are afraid people will realize but that they themselves fully understand and that colors everything that they do as a judge and that is this. Courts don’t actually have any power and in particular, they don’t actually have any power to enforce their decisions. [See, Federalist 78, in which Hamilton notes that the judiciary, “may truly be said to have neither FORCE nor WILL, but merely judgment; and must ultimately depend upon the aid of the executive arm even for the efficacy of its judgments.”] So, they will not risk making a decision that they think has a likelihood of not being obeyed. Now, when it’s with regard to criminal defendants, you know, like, for example, the people that I represent here who are not U.S. citizens and have no education and no sophistication and have, and don’t know how to read or write and, you know, the courts can of course manhandle those people and do whatever they want to those people without any sort of fear of not being able to enforce their decisions because those people are pathetic people without any power.
But that’s not really the most important type of person that a court is supposed to be trying to wrangle into proper behavior or sort of offer guidance to. Really, the most important rule for courts is to make sure that the powerful stay within the lines of constitutionality and legality and appropriateness and humanity and all the things that we hope the judges would care about, and that is the absolute last person that a court will do that to. And the reason is, as I say, because there’s a likelihood that it won’t be obeyed.
So, let me give you an example, we have this business with travel bans that have been going up and down the Federal courts ever since Donald Trump went into office and of these bans keep going in front of the courts, and the courts are not and will not shoot them down automatically. They’re not going to do it because there is the risk, the real risk that Donald Trump will simply not obey.
So, for example, let’s say that the court were to issue a ruling saying, “Nope, you have to let all Syrians into the country that that’s, it’s an unconstitutional religious discrimination or race discrimination bias to keep Syrian refugees out, you gotta let them in.” In that instance, it’s very likely that Donald Trump would say, “No, we’re going to ban them anyway.” Well, now what? Then you find yourself in a situation, like, when John Marshall ruled that the Trail of Tears should not happen and Andrew Jackson famously said, Andrew Jack, “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.” And then the Trail of Tears, as we all know happened. And all that did was even further undermine the court’s legitimacy by the President demonstrating that he doesn’t actually have to listen to the courts.
So, Bush v Gore is another example because the court was safe in delivering the election to George W. Bush, because the court knew that Al Gore was not a crazy person and that he had some sort of respect for the judicial process and government and, therefore, he wasn’t going to call for revolution like Donald Trump might very well do. Or maybe even call for the arrest of the justices who ordered something that he doesn’t think is the right thing. The critical point is that this is true even if, that the courts will never do this, even if they should in order to fulfill their role as interpreters of the law and the Constitution who need to make sure that those laws and rules are enforced. Which means that they are not functioning as an institution.
And so, the idea that the existence of Trump of the presidency or the way things are going in the continued circus of horrors that is the Trump Administration, that it’s being allowed to go represents an institutional failure is really not to say anything more than that the people who are in that institution are failing. I don’t say that in a bad, like, “let’s give up, it’s all hopeless” way, I say it in order to turn the lens away from the institutions and recognize that there are no institutions, there’s just people in there that we really can’t count on and turn the lens towards ourselves and say it’s people who are failing, that means that the problem can also be fixed by people.
And so, we can act in a way where we don’t abdicate our responsibility to be responsible citizens to the things that are in place that are meant to keep the country functioning properly like the judiciary, like the executive branch. We have to look to ourselves and one of the things to do is to look carefully at the people in the institutions and then to act ourselves, in the way that we would have hoped that they would have acted and to call people out on their hypocrisies and on their failures. If there’s any one point of this particular episode of the podcast, it’s this, you cannot just count on the institutions to save you, institutions don’t exist. There may be wonderful rare people with integrity within those institutions and you’re counting on those people to do their part, but as an institution itself, even though it’s in a fancy building, even though the clothing the people wear there, the language is very high falutin and very imposing and all that stuff, none of that matters.
Look underneath to what is actually happening and then look to yourself and the wonderful thing about that is, you can’t count, it’s scary, it’s a scary thing. You can’t count on the judiciary, even though it looks like you can, you can’t. But you can count on yourself and you are in control of what you do and it’s very important that you act in a way that is American in the best sense. In a way that is tolerant and compassionate and fair and just, and that you insist upon that from everyone that you encounter, especially, the people who are supposed to be doing it anyway as part of their jobs.