Too far right and left? DC think tank releases manifesto for radical centrism

Americans must choose the middle path, away from the fundamentalist positions on both the right and the left, argues a Washington think tank.

  • Niskanen Center, a Washington think tank, argues for avoiding the extremes of political positions.
  • The analysts propose that both a regulated free market and bolstered social insurance programs are important.
  • If we don't correct course soon, the American political system may never recover, warn the authors.

If you've had enough of all the political bickering coming from every side, a Washington think tank released a manifesto that it hopes will inspire those in the middle. The Niskanen Center's policy essay "The Center Can Hold: Public Policy in the Age of Extremes" attempts to incorporate rival ideological positions into a way forward for the divided America.

The cognitive scientist Steven Pinker of Harvard University highlighted the document in his tweet, indicating it will appeal to those who are "frustrated with the stale ideologies and mutual demonization of the Left and Right".

In an overview of the paper on the center's site, Niskanen's Vice Presidents Brink Lindsey and Will Wilkinson, along with other senior analysts write that American democracy is in the midst of a "crisis of legitimacy," which started with Donald Trump's ascendancy to the Presidency. Niskanen's document describes Trump as "an extravagantly unfit demagogue" who was elevated to "the most powerful position on the planet." His rise to power would not happened "in a healthy, stable, well-governed polity," argue the writers. What's more, they warn that without addressing the underlying issues, even stronger "anti-democratic demagogues" might follow Trump into the presidency. And unlike Trump, they "may possess the self-discipline and focus to translate their dark designs into explicitly authoritarian usurpations," caution the analysts.

Credit: Getty Images.

Antifa and counter protestors to a far-right rally argue during the Unite the Right 2 Rally in Washington, DC, on August 12, 2018.

The paper sees the need for new approaches to government in order to "quell populist distemper" and restore faith in institutions. There is a need for both more market competition and improved social insurance, without resorting to the fundamentalist "pro-market" right and "pro-government" left dichotomies of old, state the authors. The role of the government should be to create more opportunity and make for less corrupt governance.

The authors argue that America's slowing economic growth (if you compare to the 20th century) as well as growing income inequality are both issues that need serious attention. In particular, the manifesto's creators call for "far-reaching regulatory reforms to unwind distorted rules that favor privileged insiders at the expense of everyone else." But they recognize that the market doesn't benefit everyone the same and as such there's a need to "bolster social insurance programs to address dislocations caused by creative destruction and maintain political support for robust market competition."

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The politically "hybrid vision" from Niskanen proposes a "free-market welfare state," recognizing that free people have "the right to rule ourselves, within limits". But embracing the free market without key regulations could both cause collusion and excessive concentration of power and wealth because "participants in a capitalist economy do not like competition" and will do all they can to avoid it. Relying on the market to regulate itself can also lead to the worsening of crucially important social goods like education.

But democracy and forms of government also need constraints, say the authors, pointing out that the U.S. is suffering from "kludgeocracy" – "the proliferation of complicated, contradictory, ineffective, and inflexible policy mechanisms." Old policies and institutions abound, accumulating a mess and making it harder to move forward and implement new ideas.

"The first principle of moderation is recognition of the plurality of political goods and the constraints of human nature," write the analysts from Niskanen. "Liberty is a vital principle of the open society, but so are community and equality. Absolutizing any of these political goods is the essence of ideological thinking, while moderation is a recognition that all of them are important.'

You can read the full paper here.

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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

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  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.