The Mortar and The Pestle

by Michael Liss

My dad was a pharmacist. He had an old-fashioned store (including an actual soda fountain and stools) and some of the old-fashioned tools of the trade: scales and eye-droppers, spatulas and ointment bases, graded flasks and beakers, amphorae, and his mortar and pestle.

Pharmacy was a bit more of an art in those days and doctors often wrote prescriptions that had a little eye of newt in them. This could make Dad cranky, as they took time and counterspace, but I suspect that, secretly, he liked doing them. He would bring out the mortar and pestle (sometimes with a Remington’s Practice of Pharmacy), and, for all intents and purposes, he could have been an herbalist for a Pharaoh, so old was the tradition of combining exotic ingredients and using time and pressure until the desired potency and texture was achieved.

I have been thinking about that mortar and pestle the last few weeks. They remind me of how just the simplest set of tools, coupled with accumulated knowledge and craftsmanship, can produce something useful and even essential. And, they make me wonder whether, in this insane age, where ignorance and even falsehoods are celebrated and experience scorned, there is anything at all they still have to teach.

Last month, I attended the 16th annual conference of Columbia’s Center on Capitalism and Society. The topic was “The Economic Consequences of Mr. Trump: Jobs, Wages, Trade, Growth, Health and Satisfaction.” The organizers made a real effort to include views from across the spectrum, although it’s fair to say a majority were not Trump supporters. Nevertheless, the overall tone was cautious and analytical, rather than hypercritical. These are serious people (including three Nobel Prize winners), all literate and classically trained, and all share a deep understanding of the laws of economics, and a vast knowledge of data and historical trends.

There is no way I can do justice to a day of such intense sobriety, so I’m going to take a shortcut. Trump is not like anyone in their collective experience.

Rather, he is the mad scientist who tosses out the Remington while throwing into the mortar things they warned you in apothecary school definitely don’t go together. At the bottom of the bowl is a bizarre combination of traditional Republican pro-business policies and an utterly unconventional dose of populism, corporatism, and mercantilism. To thoroughly abuse Neil Simon, it can best be described as either very bad meat, or very good cheese.

But does it work? Or does the toxicity-to-efficacy ratio leave the patient on the brink of multi-organ collapse? The conferees’ goal was to make some sense out of it all.

It wasn’t all negative. Even Trump’s harshest critics didn’t deny some upside. There has been growth and lower unemployment, and the stock-market has (or had) been making new highs. Trump does plenty of mainstream things that conservative economists love—mostly cut taxes, provide a safe harbor for repatriation of profits held abroad, roll back regulations, and aim at non-military government spending. For the rest of Trump’s package, there was considerably less enthusiasm. There was a lot of concern about the deficit, and surprising consensus on Trump’s gutting of environmental regulations and his obsession with coal. I expected the more conservative members of the group to defend this, but just about everyone saw the costs dwarfing whatever short-term economic benefits might accrue. And virtually no one liked the trade wars and tariffs; bear in mind, to a classically trained economist, the infamous Smoot-Hawley bill, passed in 1930 and signed by Herbert Hoover, remains the gold standard of bad.

Yet in all of these cool and calculated observations, graphs, and charts, there was also an interesting undercurrent: Trump is not an idiot—he can be appallingly ignorant, but most of the time he’s just purposely unorthodox and lacking in subtlety. And perhaps he has done us all a favor by identifying issues that we have been unable to reconcile using the old ways—things that the electorate may have internalized and voted on without having fully articulated. There are two main themes of the start of the 21st Century. The first is the unraveling of the post-World War II international order, which is based on a web of military alliances cinched together with trade agreements. The second is the crumbling “domestic” order that is supposed to deliver both widespread prosperity and the type of government that the largest number of people can accept as beneficial and reasonable. These are things that need our attention.

Of course, Trump’s medicine for both is typically Trumpian: A strong dose of Trump. “Real” America is mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, either at home or abroad. Get on board, pay the toll of obeisance, or get stomped on.

Can this work? Trump says he can win any trade war. Few professionals agree, yet he did renegotiate NAFTA and get some concessions. We can debate the extent of his victory, but even if there is a marginal improvement, then the question is strictly whether the damage to relationships with the Mexicans and Canadians (and, potentially, those other countries who may no longer see the U.S. as a stable negotiating partner) was worth the price. Is the NAFTA example scalable, and can it be applied to foreign policy? Is Trump’s fetish for Putin and his contempt for NATO partly for show to persuade the Europeans to take greater responsibility for their own security? If so, will that also reduce our influence? Pretty much all of us know what the Establishment’s consensus on that is—he’s a reckless fool. But he’s a reckless fool who happens to be President, and until he leaves, he’s the only game in town.

When he does leave, what’s next? To this point, I had a fascinating conversation last week with a semi-retired journalist who had spent many years covering the inner workings of Congress. He talked about the destructive influence of partisanship, but what was really interesting was his insights as to how laws are made. What most people don’t understand about legislating is that, to do it right, you need both openness to other ideas and sufficient depth to grasp the nuances. Obviously, Senators and Congressmen can’t possibly have granular expertise in every topic (most of them aren’t interested anyway) so they rely on aides who theoretically do. The system works if the aides are serious and involved—they really can be the unsung heroes of good legislation. The problem, the journalist told me, is that the aides are no longer any good. Where once they were hired for their abilities, now they are either basically publicity people, focusing on the soundbite that will make their boss look good, or come from (and will return to) the industries or special interests they are supposed to help regulate.

When the aides are bad, the laws they write are bad, shot through with technical errors and sprinkled with spoils and petty punishments. This, perversely, feeds the disdain that most Americans have for their government, and further radicalizes them, leading to ever-more extreme office holders with even less capacity for doing anything well. The process repeats itself in election after election, until what we have is the distilled essence of stupid, and leads, inevitably, to someone like Trump. So, whether Trump is the apotheosis of an age that rejects knowledge and nuance because it seems ineffectual, or just the product of it, is beside the point. The trendlines have been here for decades, and it’s the electorate itself that has engaged in self-sabotage. The shock of 2016 shouldn’t have been that Trump won the Electoral College. It’s that anyone like Trump could get 63 million votes. That reflects our, and conventional wisdom’s, collective failure.

How do we stop failing, regain our secular faith in our system and recapture our competence? As the Kavanaugh hearings showed us, grandstanding, preening for the cameras, and the worst kind of rank partisanship seem to be the default setting for virtually everyone in, or aspiring to, higher office. When you get this sick, there is no overnight miracle cure.

Maybe we just have to go back to basics. There is one thing my Dad sometimes did that sticks with me. He couldn’t spend time with everyone picking up a prescription. But occasionally, especially for a worried parent, he did. He would emerge from behind his raised white work area, the magic potion in his left hand. He used his right as a musical conductor might have in a quieter passage, held at a 45 degree angle, palm face down, gently counting beats as he gave precise instructions. He identified possible side-effects, mentioned that improvement might not be linear or immediate, gave markers of progress to watch for. Only then would he place the package into anxious hands. These interactions, which rarely lasted more than a minute or two, very often calmed people, made them a partner, and gave them agency.

Expertise, partnership, and agency is exactly what many want from their government, not endless bickering and embarrassing public displays. There’s a palpable ache out there to be called to something better, something with beauty and meaning and value. Most of us feel it, but it is particularly acute in younger people, for whom the future is a lifetime of learning, and the mistakes of the past not their doing.

Perhaps that explains two emails I received from my friend Christine Helmer, a Martin Luther scholar and Professor of Religious Studies at Northwestern:
“The quarter started yesterday—my intro to theology is oversubscribed, odd, seems like the kids are really anxious nowadays and seeking some lasting values (amid a news cycle that is thoroughly distressing)” and then, “Getting ready for my oversubscribed class, dealing with the knowledge of self and knowledge of God…”

If the future of this country wants to grapple with big issues like philosophy and theology, maybe the rest of us should take heed and hold up our end.

Or, to borrow from a different liturgy, the Gates of Repentance are always open.

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