Reflections on the intersection of economics, history, politics, psychology and science


Items of interest, comments on podcasts, basically anything we publish other than the podcasts themselves…

Honoring MLK

I’m embarrassed to admit that, like I suspect many White Americans, when I think about “Martin Luther King” and “speeches” I only come up with one: “I Have a Dream”. Granted, it is great, because it’s beautiful, intense, emotional and thought-provoking.

But it’s not the only thing he ever delivered deserving of recognition.

Jamelle Bouie, in a recent New York Times subscriber-only newsletter1 introduced me to another of MLK’s speeches which in many ways is even better than I Have a Dream. Because it builds on that earlier speech, and adds insights that King developed after delivering Dream.

A Christmas Sermon on Peace was King’s last Christmas sermon before he was assassinated, delivered December 24, 1967. He started by noting just how far away from peace the world was, an observation which, sadly, applies today as well:

This Christmas season finds us a rather bewildered human race. We have neither peace within nor peace without. Everywhere paralyzing fears harrow people by day and haunt them by night. Our world is sick with war; everywhere we turn we see its ominous possibilities.

His solution involves something which any Boiling Frog listener would instantly recognize:

Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone, and as long as we try, the more we are going to have war in this world. Now the judgment of God is upon us, and we must either learn to live together as brothers or we are all going to perish together as fools.

While not rejecting individualism he clearly articulates why it cannot be the basis of any complex society, let alone one as filled with opportunity and potential as our own. Our connectedness, the communities we build, are key to our personal success:

Yes, as nations and individuals, we are interdependent […] And before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half of the world. This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren’t going to have peace on earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality.

But he then ropes in a connection which I’d never thought of. We’ve all heard the aphorism “the ends don’t justify the means”…but King highlights a connection which is much deeper than just the basis of a warning:

But we will never have peace in the world until men everywhere recognize that ends are not cut off from means, because the means represent the ideal in the making, and the end in process, and ultimately you can’t reach good ends through evil means, because the means represent the seed and the end represents the tree. […]

We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means. All of this is saying that, in the final analysis, means and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means, and ultimately destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends.

Yet he was well aware how far away this hope, this dream was, and still remains more than fifty years later:

I must confess to you today that not long after talking about that dream I started seeing it turn into a nightmare. I remember the first time I saw that dream turn into a nightmare, just a few weeks after I had talked about it. It was when four beautiful, unoffending, innocent Negro girls were murdered in a church in Birmingham, Alabama. 

Yet despite how distant that dream seemed, King remained defiantly confident it would one day be achieved:

I still have a dream that one day the idle industries of Appalachia will be revitalized, and the empty stomachs of Mississippi will be filled, and brotherhood will be more than a few words at the end of a prayer, but rather the first order of business on every legislative agenda. I still have a dream today that one day justice will roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

But how can that possibly come about? Here’s Bouie’s synthesis of King’s legacy in that regard, which I think resonates powerfully with ideas we come back to in our podcasts again and again:

Our problems are global problems: a rising tide of chauvinism and authoritarianism; corruption that touches and distorts representative institutions around the world; and, of course, climate change. King’s observation that for any of us to do anything we must rely on the work and labor of someone halfway around the world …is truer now than it was then, and demands that we recognize the fact, not for self-flagellation but for solidarity.

To connect to laborers around the world, to see that their struggles relate to ours and ours relate to theirs, is to begin to forge the “network of mutuality” that we will need to tackle our global problems as well as to confront the obstacles to our collective liberation from domination and hierarchy.

Thank you, Dr. King, for your insight, your dedication and your courage. May we one day live up to your dreams.

  1. If you live anywhere in the United States and don’t subscribe to the New York Times, you should. And probably should, wherever you live. 

Prisoner Voting Rights

One of our listeners contacted us to comment on our recent podcast, Toad to the White House, where we discussed, among other things, why both current convicts and former convicts have limited or nonexistent voting rights. It was correctly noted that we omitted a key point in that discussion — the fact that our justice system disproportionately and unfairly prosecutes people of color (documented by innumerable studies on the subject) makes the restriction on prisoners’ (and ex-prisoners’) voting rights a de facto form of race-based discrimination around voting as well. We should have delved deeper into that point in our discussion.

Dramatic Statement of the Obvious, Redux

An article today in the New York Times tell us what we already knew would happen (certainly to listeners of The Boiling Frog, and specifically those who listened to the Jumping to Conclusions episode). Referring to the state of Texas, the subtitle of the article states, “A new law allowing people to carry handguns without a license has led to more spontaneous shootings, many in law enforcement say.” Well, duh.

“Originalism” and Voting Rights

After recording our 19th podcast (The Toad to the White House) on voting rights a friend with far more knowledge of the Constitution than me taught me about the 15th Amendment. This provision grew out of the US Civil War and the effort immediately after that conflict to both forbid slavery and enshrine the ability of citizens to vote.

The authors of the 15th Amendment were addressing the same issue we identified in our podcast: freedom is at risk when people are denied a seat at the table by being kept from voting, which prior to ratification of the 15th Amendment had mostly been left in the hands of the states, with terrible results.

Sadly, it is far less well-known than its “sister amendment”, the “equal protection” one, the 14th Amendment. Which is why, despite being more familiar with the law and our Constitution than the average amphibian, we ended up suggesting a solution in our podcast which has been part of our legal framework for over a century.

Why this level of ignorance of such an important Constitutional principle exists is almost certainly due, in part, to how originalism — with its supposed emphasis on resolving Constitutional issues based on original intent — can easily be corrupted into a tool to support almost any kind of conclusion you want.

To read more about this, check out this article.

And reflect on the actual words of the 15th Amendment yourself.

Keeping the American Experiment Alive

This is an op ed Mark wrote which was published in the San Mateo Daily Journal on July 1, 2022.

This Independence Day comes at a disturbing time, with rights being trampled so that personal privileges can be maintained. Underpay people, denying them a decent life while enriching yourself. Require everyone to risk slaughter by madmen so you can protect yourself against imaginary threats. Take control over women’s’ bodies because they can’t be trusted to do what you think best.

But there is reason for hope. Because while distorting our principles got us into this mess, those ideals also point the way out. If enough people exert themselves to get us back on track.

Our federal government was created a decade after we won our liberty. Those first years were tumultuous, and oddly similar to today. Our first confederation failed, too weak to deal with the British cutting us off from their empire. Leading to massive inflation, followed by massive deflation.

Most states wanted to go their own way. It’s hard to forge a nation out of people who considered “America” an abstract label. Even a century later, Robert E. Lee justified treason by explaining he might be an American but was a Virginian first.

The well-off feared economic calamity was causing voters to push state governments into radicalism. A new national government was needed to keep the states in line. Washington wrote about this fear in letters to the central figures behind the Constitution.

In most states adopting the Constitution required approval by specially elected delegates, at a time when many voters were facing ruin. That drove the authors to market the pitch in the language of individual liberty and freedom. After all, voters were being asked to consider something intended to rein in the very state governments they looked to for help. It is not an accident that the Constitution starts with “We the People” despite being designed to govern the states.

It was a brilliant strategy, and it worked, albeit just barely. Most of the state votes were close (Rhode Island overwhelmingly rejected the Constitution in a plebiscite). I can see the authors wiping their brows and congratulating each other: “Thank goodness, we managed to avoid losing everything!”.

Under the Constitution everyone is equal before the law. It’s a radical idea, as any dictator will tell you. But it’s never been fully implemented, probably because the people who wrote it were leery of what the have-nots – and women and slaves and other “rightfully” suppressed groups — might do with it.

That disconnect has plagued our history. Political stability allowed economic forces to dramatically enhance wealth and income. Yet economic success creates and magnifies disparities favoring the more successful, whether they achieved that success through their own efforts or by birth. The powerful will always be tempted to warp the system to protect their interests, at the expense of those with less clout.

We’ve never found a solution to that problem. We probably never will. We each rightfully value our freedom – and all the benefits freedom delivers — too much to over constrain ourselves. Even when some use their power against the rest of us. Besides, it’s only human to be tempted to want such power, if and when we amass it.

But periodically we remember what the Revolution meant, declare enough is enough, and enact new rules to keep unbridled self-interest from destroying the system.

The last forty years have seen America deliver spectacularly … for some. But overzealous pursuit of self-interest led many of us to ignore the less powerful and rationalize their lack of clout as a sign of incompetence. Now self-interest is leading some to suppress others’ freedoms to force conformance to desired behaviors. Intolerance and bigotry are once again on the rise.

No community can survive such trends. Because communities – and the success they enable individuals to achieve — are more than just people who happen to hang out together. We each must be willing to belong. Which requires tolerance.

Righting the ship won’t be easy. We can start by committing to think critically and objectively about all public matters. Particularly in the selection of leaders. We need to reject those who would encourage division and paranoia to line their and their friends’ pockets or maintain their hold on power.

On this Independence Day I hope we will remember the Revolution is not something that happened once, long ago. It’s an ongoing story, constantly evolving. To fulfill its potential, we must breathe new life into it, every day. Particularly now when the American experiment is once again in peril.

Mark is a former mayor of San Carlos. He and Seth Rosenblatt host a podcast at exploring the intersection of economics, history, politics, psychology and science.

Nehemiah Scudder

One of us (Mark) is a life-long consumer of science fiction. And, growing up in the 1960s, you can’t be into that genre without knowing more than a little about Robert Heinlein, who published from the early 1940s through the late 1980s.

Heinlein delighted in sparking controversy…which is why he has been considered a towering figure, a racist1, the inventor of modern libertarianism2, and the spark that led to flower power3.

But what he is perhaps best known for was a future history that began with his very first stories and continued in various short stories and novels up until his death. In that “history” the United States fell into a religious dictatorship after the 2012 Presidential election.

It made a huge impression on me because I could not imagine how something like that could happen. But as I learned more history and learned more about the things we touch on in our podcasts…I’ve come to believe it could conceivably — and easily — happen.

But I hope it won’t. And part of the reason I speak out against fundamentalism is because I don’t want it to.

Here’s what Heinlein had to say in some endnotes he wrote, lightly edited to shorten it. Keep in mind these were written in the early 1950s. And think about how the world has changed to give us the tools to stop something like it from happening…while at the same time making it more likely that it could. Copyright Robert Heinlein, 1951/52.

As for…the idea that we could lose our freedom by succumbing to a wave of religious hysteria, I am sorry to say that I consider it possible. I hope that it is not probable. But there is a latent deep strain of religious fanaticism in this, our culture; it is rooted in our history and it has broken out many times in the past. It is with us now; there has been a sharp rise in strongly evangelical sects in this country in recent years, some of which hold beliefs theocratic in the extreme, anti-intellectual, anti-scientific and anti-libertarian.

It is a truism that almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so, and will follow it by suppressing opposition, subverting all education to seize early the minds of the young, and by killing, locking up, or driving underground all heretics. This is equally true whether the faith is Communism or Holy-Rollerism; indeed, it is the bounden duty of the faithful to do so. The custodians of the True Faith cannot logically admit tolerance of heresy to be a virtue.

Could any one sect obtain a working majority at the polls and take over the country? Perhaps not — but a combination of a dynamic evangelist, television4, enough money, and modern techniques of advertising and propaganda might make Billy Sunday’s efforts look like a corner store compared to Sears Roebuck5. Throw in a depression for good measure, promise a material heaven here on earth, add a dash of anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Negroism, and a good large dose of anti-“furriners” in general and anti-intellectuals here at home and the result might be something quite frightening — particularly when one recalls that our voting system is such that a minority distributed as pluralities in enough states can constitute a working majority in Washington.

I imagined Nehemiah Scudder as a backwoods evangelist who combined some of the features of John Calvin, Savonarola, Judge Rutherford and Huey Long. His influence was not national until after the death of an early convert who had the single virtue of being the widow of an extremely wealthy man6. She left Brother Scudder several millions of dollars7 with which to establish a television station8. Shortly thereafter he teamed up with an ex-Senator from his home state and they were on their way to fame and fortune. Presently they needed stormtrooopers; they revived the Ku Klux Klan in everything but the name. Blood at the polls and blood in the streets, but Scudder won the election. The next election was never held.

  1. Sixth Column and Farnham’s Freehold 

  2. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, about the revolt of the Lunar penal colonies in 2076. Guess what actual revolution that was patterned after? 

  3. Stranger in a Strange Land 

  4. think what could be done with the internet! 

  5. or Walmart, nowadays 

  6. a little misogyny here, but the point is valid independent of gender 

  7. read billions today 

  8. a media empire nowadays