Tag Archives: corporatism

Middle Interim

Primary season has begun. Eight states have already held them and the numbers are beginning to come in.

November is going to be significant, no matter what the outcome, because it may tell us something about who we think we are. Midterms are notorious for low voter turn-out. That has to change. After a year and a half of incompetence (actually much more than that, but I’m addressing the current manifestation of mediocrity) we cannot afford to be our usual “oh, who cares about midterms, it’s not like they’re important” attitude that usually seems to dominate at them.

A few things to keep in mind. Midterms have traditionally been decided by far less than half of eligible voters. Which means that the winning party usually wins by virtue of less than a quarter of the voters. The rest of us then spend the next two years complaining about the idiots in congress etc, but rarely do the people who blew off their civic responsibility (and who are often the loudest complainers) own up to the mess they allowed to occur. Well, to those of you who fail to vote, two things: you have basically permitted yourselves to be irrelevant; and you will probably be bypassed by the generation coming up. Until that happens, though, the rest of us have to suffer the consequences of your voicelessness.  You did a number on the country this last election by sitting it out.  If you’re happy with the results, well, so be it. But if you’re one of the ones regularly complaining about the state of the country, all I can say is, either show up from now on or shut up.

Moving on.

I do not intend to write another thing about Trump after this. As far as I’m concerned, he is a giant ball of mediocrity. He is, however, being consistent according to his past. His “style” if you will is to dance around and take advantage of openings like a boxer and punch. He has no plan in the usual sense. His goal is to win the present argument and hope it comes out in his favor. The trail of bankruptcies, half-finished ventures, and lawsuits is a testament to this. He is not orderly, coherent, or conscientious. He is an improviser. It may well be that he is someone you might want on your negotiating team going into a difficult discussion, but he should never be the lead. There is no evidence that he has any longterm strategy. He is all about tactics. Example: note the photographs of the recently concluded G7. The roundtable, where every single person attending has a collection of papers, notebooks, reference material at their seat—except Trump. He did not prepare, he was not prepared. He was looking for a chance to “go with his gut” as he likes to say.

No doubt people who have done business with him have made money. He’s in that game, stirring the pot, and just by the law of averages certain people will know how to play, and will make out well. Some of his ventures have been “rescued” by people who then turned them around and made them work. Let me be clear—there’s nothing especially wrong with that. If everyone at the table is there to play the same game and they all know the rules and are willing to take the risks, fine. That’s a species of American business. You improvise, you deal, you roll with the punches, you look for some way to land on your feet, and sometimes things align and it looks like you came out okay. A survey among those with whom he has done business in the past reveals a very mixed assessment, but mostly he is regarded by some of our more consistently successful entrepreneurs as a rogue factor at best, a rank amateur, or a lucky incompetent at worst. Even so, that’s a game and he plays it. It’s questionable if he ever gets the result he started out wanting, but the definition of a win in this case is fluid. If he walks away able to play the next round—and can find people willing to play it with him—that counts as a win.

You can’t lead a country that way. You have to know what the end result is supposed to be and thus far there is no blueprint.

This would not be as great a problem as it is if we had a congress that possessed collective competence. The problem is, congress is filled with people who are either cut from the same cloth or are just as mediocre. The majority in control seem incapable of accepting that whatever vision they may have carried into the job is not working out and maybe, just maybe they have to compromise on some things in order to do the People’s Business. Many of them are looking at Trump in alarm, but those who might be in positions to do something are caught by the fact that large parts of Trump’s tactics align with what they’ve been trying to do for years, namely destroy the safety net, establish (often unstated) class hegemonies, and hand over as much power and resources to those they believe will work to the benefit of the country as a whole from the private sector. They have done this under the guise of “getting the government out of people’s lives” but then turn around and enact laws that allow private corporations to get very deeply into people’s lives. They see no contradiction in this. Since those corporations are dependent on government assistance to do what they intend to do, it ought to be obvious that taking one hand off so the other can replace it is little more than a shell game wherein the only difference is who gets scammed.

Trump has been the beneficiary of a long trend in this direction. He did instinctively understand that about the Republican Party, so that just about everything he said, including the way he said it, conformed to the deep desires of the GOP, its funders, and its base. His crudity exposed it to the glaring light of day and he managed to turn that into a positive for his campaign. He parlayed what we mistake as “plain speaking” and honesty into a slogan-driven campaign that eschewed nuance, comprehension, and decency and embraced vulgarity, bluntness, and condescension on behalf of a strain of impatience, intolerance, and frankly ignorance parading as common sense.

A few words about that. Judging by the evidence, what he tapped into can be called a collapse of caring capacity among a certain strain of self-identified American Firsters. Some decades ago the lid came off of a Pandora’s Box of vileness in the American collective culture—racism, misogyny, greed, all supported on a deep loam of myth that extols a readiness to do violence, ignore what is shown to be weakness, and an assumption that the successful American is somehow the product of an elemental “natural man” model of human nature, that if left alone we are all basically successful, entrepreneurial, independent, and highly competent. This is where all the arguments about “level playing fields” come in.  One faction of our culture assumes we already have that and people complaining that the system, however you define it, is stacked against them are only seeking unfair advantage. Admitting this latter to be true opens the possibility that our renowned self reliance is also a fable and that there is no such thing as an Independent American, not in the sense intended. It attacks a self image we have used to push ourselves up various ladders since we claimed national independence. The idea that we all rely on others and on advantages not of our creation to do anything runs counter to that myth.

Most of us know better. Some of us know better but have found advantage in perpetuating that myth.  Some people really don’t seem to get it. They don’t want to accept that their skin color, at a minimum, can be an advantage or a disadvantage. We want to believe that ability and merit are all that matter.

Trump’s hardcore supporters not only don’t want to believe it, they are willing to reject the idea with prejudice, and use Trump as their poster boy. They see all criticisms of America, his boorishness (and by extension theirs), charges of sexism and racism, as nothing but barriers intentionally placed to prevent them from being recognized for their innate greatness.

More, they seem to believe that all the people they see as taking unfair advantage have only done so by virtue of certain elected officials who were “on their side” in opposition to them. Now they have “their guy” in charge and so advantage will accrue to them.

Never mind the people who came to depend on certain progressive social policies who are now losing them and can’t understand why. Let’s just look at business. These tariffs are punitive. But they will likely not hurt the countries they are ostensibly leveled at nearly as badly as they will hurt home industries. Yet this has been one of the demands of a certain mindset for a long time—why aren’t we charging tariffs on those imports? Can’t those people in Washington see that “unfair competition” is destroying American business?

But the costs of tariffs will fall massively upon the very businesses they’re supposedly meant to protect.

Why? Because the world is more complex than such simply thinking.

It might not even be a bad idea, to adjust import duties, but not this way.  This is where his mediocrity manifests destructively. Instead of using a scalpel, he used a hammer.  (Perhaps understandably so, since his “expertise” is overwhelming in real estate.  He even compared his recent agreement with North Korea to a real estate deal. Pay attention—this is going to cause serious problems.  On the one hand, real estate is seen as a longterm, tangible commodity, but the deals surrounding it are almost always short term, high profit affairs that seek a quick agreement so the parties involved can take their money and walk away as quickly as possible. Any longterm benefit goes to banks, and we’ve seen how well they manage such things.)

The average American has been under the idea that the last forty or fifty years of international trade dealings have been in favor of the rest of the world to our detriment. The basis of this belief is a holdover from the post-World War II period when we were actively trying to help rebuild a devastated world. We understood in our bones that if the imbalances of the 19th Century and the injustices of the post World War I era continued, we would be facing another calamitous war in the near future. In order to do avoid that calamity, certain international conditions had to change.

When engaging in this resulted in the economy of the 1950s and 1960s, no one complained. We had the technology, the labor pool, and the financial resources and it put millions to work at high paying jobs which many people came to believe would be the way things were going to be from now on. In reality, the perceived “loss” of American hegemony has been the result of our success. The world is today as it is because we were tremendously successful. But obviously that meant our relative status would change. As the world recovered and the global economy took shape, industries grew in places where they previously did not exist and in those places where they had, things became more efficient and productive. The novelty of imported automobiles in the 1960s, which were the brunt of jokes then, have now become part of the accepted, normal landscape, including factories for such cars being built and operated on American soil. For better or worse, the world is catching up, and consequently the American worker has been complaining about those “lost” jobs when by the end of the 1970s the proverbial writing was on many walls.

But as a country we adapted to the new conditions and the path forward has been made obvious—we will live in a global economy.

(An aside here. I write science fiction. One of the main conceits of SF for decades has been a global government and economy. Borders would become lines on maps, movement relat8vely unrestricted. We saw some of what this would look like in the EU. But in order to achieve that, some things must change, and one of them is the idea that any one country gets to be “in charge.” I think the erosion of that myth has been one of the drivers of the reaction that put Trump in office. Some Americans want to believe in American Exceptionalism. The idea that we might be just one of the club seems a step down, nationally. What they see in Trump—and what his performance at the G7 supports—is someone who is willing to validate their perceptions. The whole “Make American Great Again” appeal is far broader than the racial aspect (make America White again), which is part of it. It’s born out of an impression that there was a time we could do what we wanted and the rest of the world listened to us. Well, that was never fully or legitimately the case, and by the end of the 1970s everyone should have realized it. But comforting illusions are difficult to dismiss and when someone comes along willing to tell us that they aren’t illusions, that we can be that way, again or otherwise, reason takes a back seat to national pride.)

Unfortunately, most of our problems cannot be laid at the feet of international trade. Our problems are internal and Trump is doing nothing to address them. By now that should be clear. And these tariffs and his juvenile exhibition at the G7 will do far more harm than such fantasies of a Triumphant America cherished by our own strain of authoritarian absolutists could possibly be worth.

But the reason I intend to stop writing about Trump (and I admit I may have occasion to do so regardless) is that Trump is not the problem. He is representative of a point of view that is, intentionally or otherwise, wrongheaded and in many ways toxic. When arguing about him with his supporters, a curious thing happens. The conversation ends with the first criticism. Even in instances where the facts underlying the criticism are inarguable, the Trump supporter shuts down and will concede nothing. (If you could argue about the issue without ever naming him, you might find a different reception.) This has become the flip-side of Obama Derangement Syndrome. When you criticize Trump to a supporter (just as when you tried to defend Obama to a detractor), you really aren’t talking about Trump anymore—you’re talking about your conversant. At the first volley, they think they know who and what you are, walls descend, the conversation is over, because now it is tribal. You aren’t criticizing Trump in their minds, you’re criticizing them.

Trump is stomping on and tearing up agreements and damaging relationships which have taken, in some instances, 70 years to build, acting as he assumes his supporters want him to act. There is no regard for consequence because, after all, how will this hurt him? He has billions, he’ll be fine. He can shit all over our allies and throw hissy fits about trade and never miss a meal.

His cheerleaders with considerably less reserves will pay for all this.

But just consider one aspect of this performance. The idea that America is supposed to come out of this more respected, or more feared, is a pitiful ambition when by acting this way he is proving that America cannot be trusted. When we have to go to our allies (or former allies) and say “This needs to be done” they can, and probably will, say “Maybe, but not with you. We can’t depend on your keeping your word.”

There may have been ways to renegotiate some of these agreements to gain a bit. But not this way. These are playground tactics. All he is doing is destroying the confidence we really did once command from others.

But this isn’t really about Trump.  This is about the walking wounded who put him in office and still think he’s doing a great job, even as they lose what health care they had and see their last remaining jobs disappear because local companies go under, broken by the burden of higher costs for imports they can’t function without.  They put their faith in a Pied Piper and he’s leading them all to a cave which is about to collapse.

We will survive. America is a big place and there is much good here. In some very important ways, we are great and never stopped being so, just not in the blunt-force-trauma ways Trump supporters seem to want. But it should never have been this hard or this costly to get to the new condition we will have to embrace in order to live on this planet and do all the worthwhile things. It’s not 1955 anymore and it never will be again.

I hope we will be better.  We can be. But maybe we just have to molt, get rid of the old skin, and leave this nonsense behind.

In the meantime—vote. Help others to vote. If you don’t vote, you surrender you voice. None of this will work without participation. Vote.

 

A Few Thoughts In Advance of the State of the Union

A year in and it is about as clear as it will ever be that we have a president both unequipped and disinterested in the job to which a quarter of the eligible population voted him into. The flailing in congress is now centered on second guessing him, improvising constantly with each revision that looks like policy, and trying to find a viable position in which to be when the final bill comes due and he is either impeached or resigns. By now, I imagine, most of them are hoping one of those happen, because the third course is trying to manage a complex, expensive nation through three more years and fearing the possibility of another four (plus possibly his vice presidential successor) should he be reelected.

I am quite serious about that, for the following reasons.

There was no way to reasonably expect him to win in the first place, but he did. All the flaws in our system came into play in a perfect storm to hand the wrong person the job. Between 40 and 47% of eligible voters did not vote. Even so, the popular vote totaled to give his opponent more. Had a mere five percent higher turnout happened…

The electoral college did its job as the representative bulwark to defend the smaller states from the larger, who in a straight popular election could swamp the Montanas and Wyomings and Alaskas all the time. If you do not understand why this is bad, just look at the consequences of gerrymandering on the state level which favors concentrations of one population group over others. Size matters. But in this case, it also failed because it does have the power to change its decision based on results that may be questionable. (A solution to this problem could be as simple as delaying the announcement of the E.C. results by a few days or a week. Unless I am mistaken, there is no law that says they must announce at the same time as the popular vote.)

Unless the Democratic Party fields a candidate that can stand apart from past problems and rally the base, Trump represents a focal point that may attract enough support to do it again.

The Republican Party misread its base as badly as the Democratic Party misread its base. The difference was, the GOP had fostered the base it then misunderstood, while the Democratic Party simply ignored its traditional base in favor of a base it represents rather well, but speaks to as if it were something else. The result was, that while the argument between the two frontrunners of the Democratic Party was, when broken down side by side, almost negligible, the difference between the final Republican candidate and those he ran against was as profound as can be even as the distinctions on policy were practically nonexistent. You might think I’m saying style over substance, but I’m not. Something worse—our president accepted the rhetoric of the GOP as if it were gospel while none of the rest of the slate did. Trump understood that a significant portion of the GOP base supported the rhetorical stances of the party in the most literal way, while the others thought they could conduct politics as usual and ignore the means by which they had gained power.

As for the electorate, the Trump supporters wanted what they got. (They probably didn’t understand what they were asking for and for some of them, maybe most of them, probably expected the changes they demanded to affect Other People and not them.) The Democrats created a chasm between their two candidates where none existed. Bernie Sanders was not going to run his administration significantly differently than Hillary Clinton. But the 24-hours news cycles, FaceBook, and the Talk Radio chaos fed the small differences between them and turned Hillary into a monster.

It is probably true that had Sanders gotten the nomination, more Democrats would have come out to vote. He probably would have beaten Trump on the simple basis that he did not suffer under an onslaught of unsubstantiated hatred. (That would have come, though, had he gotten the nomination. Still, I think he would have won, which is not to say he was going to be any better at the job than Clinton, only that the public perception of him might have allowed for more people to set aside biases they thought vital and participate. This begs the question of how such biases could have been such that the very act of participation could be seen as pointless given the choices.) He would have won because those who supported Hillary would have, while being disappointed, understood that a larger issue was at stake, put aside their disappointments, and voted for him. In spite of Sanders pleading with his supporters to do the same for Clinton, they stood by their shallow principles and allowed the country to be handed over to a real problem. In this way, they were no different than their rightwing counterparts who vote single issue even when that issue is based entirely on falsehoods and a complete misunderstanding of the issues involved.

Both parties, either by omission or direct action, have a share in the situation. Both are badly compromised by an overdependence on money. Both are hampered by a lack of focus on solutions. Both have accepted the diminishment of dreams and are fighting over fenceposts.

This is not to say that there is not now a clear moral difference between them. By default if nothing else the Democratic Party has become, if not a champion exactly, the advocate for ethical policy.

The electorate, on both sides of the divide, have been aware for decades that they are not being represented. They are also tired of the continual blaming that substitutes for cooperation and sound policy.

Both sides expected their candidate to make a thorough housecleaning of Washington D.C.

It may not have occurred to either side that a great deal of the mechanism they have been taught to mistrust and even hate actually works fairly well when you consider what it is tasked to do.

But that doesn’t fit a narrative of righteous rage.

At present we have a collection of apparent contradictions before us, some telling us things are better than they were, others quite the opposite. Prevarication, dissembling, and mendacity have always attended any political period, but to these we must add incompetence of a possibly dangerous level. With his supporters, all this passes muster because they see it as the hallmark of “their guy” being assailed by entrenched interests and having to fight back with the available tools. They are sure the apparent contradictions are more aspects of the hall of mirrors they believe D.C. to be than any flaw in his character. Again, this is familiar to any group of supporters of almost any candidate in a spotlight. He’s saying what he needs to say to stay in power and do the job.

The reduction to a form is a useful way to make sense of what can be a baffling complexity, but one which, if not tempered by sound judgment, can overwhelm our ability to recognize a real difference in kind. In this case, the usual dance of politics that supporters believe him to be performing does not explain what is clearly someone incompetent to the task.

One example is the recent attempt to bully a publisher into canceling publication of a book. Never mind what the book is about, whether it is factual or fair, this was an action taken out of petty spite and in clear violation of everything we are supposed to be about. I do not risk hyperbole in this—blatant censorship, of the kind we have always criticized in the worst dictatorships, is involved, in writing. That his lawyers had to explain to him why he could not do this should be enough to show that he is ill-suited to the job.

This has occurred several times already, the necessity of someone to explain the president the limits of his office. It remains to be seen if such discussions encompassed actual principle, that it would be unconstitutional. The continual and ongoing tussle over immigration is typical.

Then there is the pandering over American jobs. The recent tariff imposed on solar panels shows a profound disconnect over what he is supposed to be good at, namely business. Two plus years of pledges to secure jobs inside the country, and thus far he has demonstrated a lack of clear understanding. This tariff will eventually cause the loss of over twenty thousand jobs in a till now growing industry. An industry, by the way, that supplies a need but also fulfills the promise of a more environmentally friendly industry. Trump’s pandering to worker sympathies vis-a-vís the coal industry is the basest kind of cynical posturing. Environmental concerns aside, coal is a dying industry. It costs too much for too little gain. This is an example of the law of diminishing returns. Of course, this also demonstrates the skewed priorities of the party to which he is attached, in that public outrage over the lost livelihoods of coal workers is met not with any kind of sinecure for the workers but with protectionist legislation for the companies. It would never occur to them to simply pension these workers with full benefits and let the companies die the way companies do. Protect the people working the mines rather than hold them hostage to guaranteed profits for people who will even in the aftermath lose nothing but a bit of power.

Point being, there were ways to approach this that would have been capitalist-friendly and environmentally sound and progressive, but there is a burden of cronyism attached that makes sensible action incommensurable with most of those choices.

One benefit, an unintended one, to be sure, of this presidency is that the stage-managed mendacity of the last twenty years is being undone. Immigration reform, of the kind that would have resolved all the current issues, was proposed by, of all people, Bush. His own party refused to cooperate. Bush, at one time the darling of the GOP, could not get it done. Like other such issues, including abortion, the pattern has been clear and not always party-specific: certain issues make irreplaceable campaign topics. Votes can be garnered by stirring the base with the right rhetoric. Solve these issues, you take those away, and candidates would have to rely on other things, less visceral, on which to campaign. Now there is a president demanding action and threatening to topple the house of cards.

On immigration, the charade has been two-fold. Certainly it is easy to frighten certain groups with images of foreigners flooding the country and threatening our “americanness.” But it has also been a standard tool to make the economic argument that these immigrants, especially the illegal ones, are the reason wages are stagnant. (Of course, there are two elements to this, which coexist jaggedly if one cared to give it any thought: jobs being shipped overseas to take advantage of labor costs as well as immigrants coming in to threaten wages by lowering labor costs. There is something amiss with the calculus here, but people who are anxious or frightened think badly. The primary purpose of these issues is to maintain that condition. Consider just one factor: those coming here are coming here for jobs. Those jobs, obviously, have not been “shipped overseas” and require someone to do them. If actual labor costs were addressed to make wages fair, it wouldn’t matter who fills them, cost would not be the deciding factor. Similarly, jobs shipped overseas to take advantage of lower costs include regulatory costs here, bypassed by building plant in countries where such regulations do not exist. A simple solution would be to impose a reimportation tariff to essentially nullify that benefit and take away the justification for exporting plant.)

Mitch McConnell and his gang are running in panic because Trump is threatening their job security. If he were doing so intentionally, with some kind of purpose, it might be a good thing, but he has yet to follow through on any of this. It has all been a matter of unintended consequences.

People are pointing to the upsurge in economic activity as some kind of sign that his “policies” are working. Of course, these same people would deny other presidents credit on the basis that what we see happening has far more to do with the outgoing administration, because what can a president do in one year to cause this kind of surge all on his own? And that argument would be correct. A new administration’s policies take two, sometimes three years to show up all on their own. But in this instance, there is a bit of anticipatory greed at work, waiting for the gates of the city to be thrown open for the pillage to begin. We have actually fixed nothing in the wake of 2008 and are vulnerable to another meltdown because the political will is absent in D.C. to reimpose the kinds of regulations that would work to prevent it. In both parties, frankly. This is the one area where Sanders may well have been more effective. Be that as it may, there is no coherent policy to explain it in terms of the current administration. The tax reform bill came after the stock market surge, so they are not causally connected.

Tuesday night is another State of the Union address, Trump’s first. He has some explaining to do. Polls suggest that thus far he has done nothing his supporters sent him to Washington to do. He has not heard them. They want healthcare, jobs, cost-of-living adjustments, variety of things he has spent his life working to get out of paying for as a businessman. The failure to address any of these, certainly, is not all on him, he heads a party that is more concerned with keeping power than solving problems.

(The drawback to solving problems is, as I indicated, that once solved they cease to be effective campaign issues. And to be fair, this is human nature. If things are running smoothly, then the necessity of maintaining the things that make them run smoothly loses valence, and people wonder why they still have to be concerned with it. You can survey history in many areas to see this, where the cost of maintenance becomes burdensome when the need for it seems to disappear in the absence of crises.)

The sad truth is, the people who voted for him who are beginning to realize that they were betrayed believed they were getting something else. But they in fact got what they asked for—a blustering egoist chanting “Make America Great Again” while offering nothing other than nativist pabulum as a plan. What they wanted was someone who would make changes that provide them security, in jobs, in healthcare, in education. Never mind that some of their judgments on what to do about this are questionable at best. This is not to say some of these issues are not real, only that their solutions require something this man does not possess—ability.

He also lacks any kind of depth, either of intellect or character, the kind needed to get outside his own head and see the world through other eyes. His conflicts with his staff demonstrate this clearly. (Even if only a quarter of Wolff’s book is true, it is frighteningly chaotic in the White House, with most of the staff trying to mollify an intemperate egotist rather than conducting the business of the people.)

We have fostered in this country a suspicion of expertise, of intellectualism, of sophistication. We have nurtured a disregard for nuance, a quality essential for diplomacy. We have fed on a spring of poisoned waters that called itself news and we have given in to short term fear. It may well be that Hillary Clinton was not the right candidate—that candidate may not have been in the race—but she would not have broken everything the way it’s being broken now. All because we have given in to fear.

It doesn’t matter what he promised to do. For the people who still support him, you should start realizing he can’t give those things to you. It may be too much to hope that you begin to realize that you wanted the wrong things. Some of them—a country for white people only, a country with an oil well on every plot of land, a country where everyone, even children, can go armed wherever they want—are things ultimately contrary to any sane American’s vision for where and how they want to live. Do I blame Trump for fostering this? No, he’s just the face of it. And the mouth.

You have been had. And we’re all paying the price of that rejection of Better.

The Absurdity of Unexamined Positions

Recently I had an exchange with someone over climate change. It was short and frustrating. The basis of the exchange was a report—recycled from 2007 and given a new lease on life because of the recent book and film—on Al Gore’s presumably exorbitant energy use in his home.  Depending on which non-news site you chose, he either uses 34 times more than the average American or 21 times.   The intent of the articles was to show Mr. Gore as a hypocrite, someone preaching the sermon but then balking at the walk.

It’s true, he lives large.  He has a ten thousand square foot home, which is more than five times the size of the average American home, and that doesn’t include the grounds.  But there was also no mention made of the carbon offsets he buys or the investments he makes in green energy or the money he spent upgrading a century old house to more modern energy efficiencies or the way he has specified the source of much of his energy so that a lot if not most comes from alternate sources.  This was a standard-issue bit of simple-minded criticism that says if you do not live in a hovel when preaching about certain things, you’re automatically a hypocrite.  It is not, I should point, about forcing Al Gore to reduce his lifestyle but to force him to shut up.  None of these people would care if he moved into a double-wide with solar panels and a hydrogen cell to live off the grid.  Their purpose is to get him to stop talking.

As I said, the exchange was short. This was with a climate change denier fully invested in the belief that it is all a hoax.  I was reminded of the mindset of occultists and alchemists, who at their base believed fervently that answers were unobtainable, that if you thought you had found the truth you were automatically wrong.  No, few if any ever stated it so baldly, but it’s obvious from the way they would avoid genuine experiment, deny all arguments that might contradict received wisdom, and generally evaded any conclusion that suggested they were in pursuit of the unattainable.  Science had to rid itself of this obdurate self-imposed blindness before it could flourish and it seems clear that we are burdened with some variation of it still.

But I wondered, just what drives this kind of selective self-censorship?

Well, obviously a lack of understanding.  The science is complex and people often have difficulty grasping causal concepts that seem to contradict personal experience. When your city is frozen in the grip of a record-breaking snow storm it’s difficult to reconcile the assertion that global temperatures are rising.  Difficult but not impossible, especially if the following summer comes with record-breaking heat, for perhaps the fourth or fifth consecutive year.  (Climate has changed in St. Louis.  When I was a kid, three feet of snow in December was not unusual, snow that lasted through February sometimes. Now?  People are stunned when we have a foot that lasts a week, if that. Summers are hotter. Certain insect patterns have shifted. Things have changed and when I look for explanations the only model that conforms to experience is global climate change.)  Lack of understanding can be corrected, though.  People can learn.  They may not want to but they can.

Sometimes, though, they go down a cul-d-sac and get stuck in a plausible dead-end. Staying there, though, depends on things having little to do with evidence or logic.

Consider: the rejection of climate change makes no sense. Addressing the problem of where we get our energy is a technical issue, a matter of engineering. There are several reasons, perfectly sound ones, to change the way we do this.  Pollution is the simplest one.  What kind of a world do you want to live in?  One with soot, particulates,  toxicity? The expense of defending against such things is high, depending where you live. Environmental degradation is another. Tearing up mountains to extract coal, leaving ugly holes, spilling the effluent into waterways, drilling—and fracking is worse.  Look at satellite images of fracking-intense areas and the clouds of waste gas.  And of course earthquakes where few if any had occurred before.  And the damage to water tables.

Jobs is the cry.  Displacing workers.  Well, building a whole new industry would seem to be a jobs-positive thing. The technology and industries to not only build solar and wind would expand the jobs market, but also the construction of the networks, distribution, and upgrading and maintaining the grid (which needs it anyway, regardless of the energy source), all these things mean jobs.

The expense!  The expense we currently shoulder in artificially maintaining obsolete systems should by now be common knowledge.  The expense on taxpayers subsidizing industries that are collapsing not to mention the downstream expense of cleaning up after the pollution.  The expense of people made sick.  The asthma rates in coal country are rising.  We pay an exorbitant amount to maintain the illusion that coal and oil are the only means to accomplish what we want to.

Someone like Al Gore comes along and starts pointing this out.  You might quibble with some of his details, but in essence he has a sound argument.  Instead of attacking the argument—which might lead to some edifying consequence, like all of us learning something useful—his character is attacked.  This is not an uncommon tactic.  Some people seem to feel a person has to be virtually a saint in order to hold and disseminate an opinion.  But if what he says is supported by the science, what difference does it make how he lives?  What is it about his lifestyle that invalidates the message?

He’s asking other people to change but, presumably, he won’t.

What exactly is he asking most people to change?  If tomorrow your electricity came from wind turbines instead of a coal-fired plant, what has changed for you?  Electricity is electricity. The costs? Costs aren’t rising anyway?  Your taxes aren’t going to subsidize the industry?  Or is this more akin to the fear of “death panels” presumably inevitable with universal health care?  We go along with this and next year someone from the government will take away your car or truck? Transportation is already changing, it will continue to do so, and in ten years you may find you don’t even want your car, but that’s beside the point.  Such a fear is a boogeyman used to keep us from addressing the problem.  My question stands: what exactly is he asking you to change?

The question of costs is not irrelevant, but as I say, they’re going up anyway.  Maybe in the long run there might be some relief if part of the cost is not in cleaning up so much detritus.  But that requires long term thinking outside your immediate sphere.  You have to consider the community, the country, the planet.  Most people find that difficult, if not to achieve then to sustain.

Lifestyle.  Your lifestyle will change.

That is almost unanswerable because it’s so nebulous.  As I suggest above, change is coming anyway, but probably not what you expect.  On the simple question of how you get your energy, what changes?  Still, not an irrelevant point.

There will, perhaps, be less available energy. To do what?  We’ve been undergoing a small (perhaps not so small) revolution in energy efficiency for lo these last few decades.  Our houses are full of devices that operate on far less electricity than their ancestors required.  That’s not likely to stop.  But we can look at Europe to see the numbers and discover that the very thing which will provide jobs will also suffice to power your lifestyle.

But I suspect the thing feared in terms of change has nothing to do with actual resource. What will change is some aspect of identity.

From what to what?

Basically, the changes in policy required to address climate change would be a net positive whether the science is flawed or not.  Breathing cleaner air, securing the potability of our water, lightening our touch on the ecologies are all desirable and come with economic benefits regardless.  If it turned out by some odd oversight that we got the climate change model wrong, so what?  We would have built a new energy grid based on cleaner models and generally improved the well-being of the commonwealth.  If we aren’t wrong about climate change, we can add saving the world for humanity as a bonus.

But like someone who doesn’t want to give up steak for dinner, we treat climate change like vegetarianism.  It doesn’t matter that the science may be correct about the health benefits, we still want our meat.  It’s a question of identity.

We burn oil and coal!  It’s American!  All this wind and solar is somehow…somehow…feeble.

Perhaps the deniers can’t imagine building with such tools.  Perhaps they can’t accept joining in a global cooperative effort not being invented or run by America.

Whatever the reason, short-term vested interests love you.  Because they are able to count on you as foot soldiers in the fight to forestall the imposition of regulations on them.  They do not want to be told what they can or cannot do and this is just another species of limitation on their personal vision of Who Counts.

But that’s understandable.  That’s greed and avarice.  What’s the denier’s excuse?  Being somehow joined with the mighty by association with the self-styled giants of industry?

I accept the science involved.  A cold snap here and there isn’t enough to convince me all the rest is a phantom.  But it doesn’t matter.  Accepting the need to change the way we use this planet means so many other things, including eventually taking the power to dictate from people who have no business having it in the first place.  Climate Change Denial costs so much more and fails to address everything else that goes to the need to change.

When Reagan ripped the solar panels off the White House in a fit of thoughtless national pomposity, he empowered a mindset that we’re still having to put up with.  A mindset that won’t debate, won’t consider, won’t yield, and won’t change. not because the thing it rails against is wrong but because it cannot stand not being right.

Going To Mexico

The great conundrum at the heart of the movie Thelma and Louise is the problem the pair face in fleeing the law. They have to go to Mexico. They know that, they agree.  But Louise refuses to enter Texas. Thelma tries to reason with her, but to no avail. Louise will not go to Texas. They’ll have to find another way. Thelma lets it drop, recognizing the complete irrationality of the position, not knowing what to do about it, but thinking perhaps eventually reason will prevail and they’ll get to Mexico.

The Republican Party is playing the part of Louise over the Affordable Care Act. They have now found themselves face to face with the need to go to Mexico.  But they refuse to go through Texas.  (I know, the ironies multiply.)

(Now, mind you, there are problems with the ACA.  It is not what we should be doing, but it’s what we have, and we have examples to go by as to what to do, which is to work on it and make it better.  Medicaid and Medicare were horrible when they were first enacted,  but over time they have been made into something pretty good.)

Basically, they are beginning to realize that they can’t fulfill what has been their unspoken (though sometimes admitted) philosophical position for decades, which is that government is the enemy. They have campaigned on the presumption that their main task is to undo as much government structure as possible.  Repeal, defund, tear apart.  They have embraced the idea that their mandate (from who, when, and for what reason?) is to strip America of its government.

Starting with taxes. And of course they’ve been tilting at entitlements since Johnson. Their stance on the environment shows a consistent commitment to the idea that government, especially the federal government, should do nothing.  Deregulate, roll back taxes, do less, do nothing, let corporate entities step it, remain aloof, privatize. The drumbeat of group-march has driven them into a position wherein the very idea of a successful or even improvable government program is oxymoronic.

Now they are faced with the fact that people—the very ones they have been presuming to serve by gutting all these programs—actually don’t want them to do that.  And in order to improve anything, they will have to work across the aisle to actually make the ACA work better.

They have to go to Mexico and they have to go through Texas to get there.

As for their constituency, well, it’s not like they haven’t been getting mixed signals all along. In general there has been a constant background demand of “FIX IT! But don’t change anything.” They have fed back the disinformation and disconnect and reinforced the idea that government can’t do anything, in spite of evidence to the contrary.  People—their people—have believed for decades that government spends far too much and delivers too little, all to the wrong people. (And, most importantly, that it can do nothing else, that it is impossible for it to function to the benefit of the people.)  Combined with local, regional, and class attitudes, nurtured by the hyper aggressive distortions of talk radio and Fox News and the attendant priesthood of conspiracy-driven paranoia, this basic belief has been the chief barrier to reasonable discourse, the mustard gas in the air.

But even fantasy must eventually yield to reality and when thousands of solid Tea Party supporters and Trump voters understood that they were about to lose the health care provided under the much maligned and hated “Obamacare” the message changed.  “Fix it but don’t take my healthcare away!”  “Repeal this thing but leave it in place!”  “Take us to Mexico but don’t go to Texas!”

Now some senate Republicans are suggesting that the geography requires them to go where they swore they would never go.

In its most generalized form, the GOP has taken it as given that government should not step in where they believe markets should do a job.  But if those markets fail to function in accordance with public benefit, what then?

The more rabid among them seem to believe that it doesn’t matter, that only those who can thrive in that environment deserve any regard, that if you need what you cannot yourself provide, too bad, you don’t merit aid because “obviously” you fall into some category of freeloader, goldbricker, slacker, or political outlaw.

As Al Franken said in an interview (paraphrased) they believe you should pull yourself up by your boot straps. But what if you don’t have any boots?

Underlying this is some sort of apprehension that economies are somehow natural phenomena and that those who can’t survive and thrive in them should be weeded out in a bad application of Darwinian survival (based inanely on a theory they otherwise don’t accept—Texas again).  They can’t quite come out and say that because it might be in poor taste or the Left might use it against them, but clearly it’s there.  If you have no property, if you don’t make money, if you do not conform to an ideal image of American Self Sufficiency, you should die.  You do not, by virtue of simply existing, deserve any consideration from the rest of society.

Unless you’re a fetus.

The contradictions of their positions are becoming manifest and even among themselves they seem to be coming to the conclusion that, for incomprehensible reasons, reasons that should not be, what they see as the only true template for America simply will not work. They may not understand why but at least the cracks in the casing around their ideologies, at least in some cases, are beginning to let light in.

Or they really are just worried about their jobs.

It will be interesting to see how they manage this.  They’re actually going to have to, at some point, come to terms with how many of their policies over the last few decades have led to a state of the nation wherein people have been made surplus in service to a pillage of wealth that while it may look great on paper has actually eroded our general welfare.  I seem to recall that being one of their jobs, to see to the health of the commonwealth…

So what exactly will Louise do?  Go through Texas?  Or do we continue driving toward the edge of that cliff?

Stay tuned.

A Chronic State of Nostaligic Disconnect

In the past few weeks, things have not gone well for political philosophies based in traditional formulations.  Right or Left (but more so on the self-identified Right) there is a kind of flailing, a death throe undulation that looks like grasping for anchors in something that feels historically relevant but in fact turns out to be sunk in air or sand and simply gets torn loose the moment any real strain is put on it. At its most discernable, there are a lot “I know what you mean” moments, but even these are more “I think I know what you mean, maybe” moments that later turn out to be coincidental brushes with familiar syntax and not much in the way of substantive connection.

Take healthcare.  Whatever your personal feelings about what we should do, nothing being done is what anyone seems to want.  Trump said “We’re gonna fix it!” the GOP nodded sagely, then wrote a bill that would not fix it, but would return the state of American healthcare to some rough semblance of how it was back in 2007, but isn’t, because now no one, not even the insurance industry, wants that.  They have redrafted the bill to do less damage, but that’s not what they want to do, nor is it what Trump promised, although he keeps cheering congress on as long as there is some kind of repudiation of the ACA, which is not what the voters want, either.  In their case, they never really knew what they wanted other than for things to not cost so much, but as to how to “fix” that, those who voted for the current administration have no idea and distrust every single attempt to do so.  In the meantime, the professionals who might have some insight into this are being ignored, congress is pretending it’s serving the People by doing something which can only drive up costs, and Trump is offering zero sense of direction other than “Change something!”

Meanwhile, he has modified his requirements of the propose border wall by asking that it be transparent “so no one on this side will be hit in the head by the packages of drugs being thrown over it.”  Which has so many layers of problematic misapprehension of the problems it’s intended to address as to qualify as some form of mystic pabulum handed down from an airless mountaintop.

(He also bragged in an interview how great the G20 meeting was because there were, like, 20 countries represented.  Ahem.  Two things about that–either he is ignorant enough to think that is useful information or his supporters didn’t know that was what the G20 is.  Or, well, he thinks his supporters wouldn’t know this, so….never mind.)

Meanwhile (again) at the state level, the Illinois legislature finally found the spine to tell the governor that they’ve had enough of his party fundamentalism, the state needs a budget, and for it to have even a prayer of being relevant, the state needs revenue, so yes, we’re raising taxes.  The fact that this is significant is reflective of the dissociation across the entire political spectrum with regard to taxes.  In Missouri we have a strong cadre of very wealthy people who do whatever they can to eliminate any tax that dares raise its head, like some manic game of economic whack-a-mole that serves none of the purposes it is purported to serve.  Along this line, our state legislature has decided to repudiate attempts at the city and county level to address minimum wage issues and bar St. Louis—or any other municipality—from raising local minimum wages above the state level, which is a joke.  Why? None of the excuses make any sense.  Basically there seems to be some attitude at work that poor people need the incentive to become middle class and if we pay them enough that they might be able to feed their families and possibly attend classes to try to better themselves, then they will have been handed an unfair advantage and not properly appreciate it.  If there were not evidence at hand that this is a bullshit argument it would still be laughable because it ignores the current economic realities and instead seems to assume the situation is no different than it was in 1964.

And again meanwhile the people who are supposed to understand such things are scratching their heads at the puzzling data that while productivity has been rising steadily for the last seven years, along with job growth, wages have stagnated.  The increased profitability of all these companies has not resulted in an increase share of the wealth with workers, as it would have (again) back in 1964, and they don’t understand what’s happening.  What’s not to understand?  Two things have changed since then that explain it quite well—one is that technology has become significantly more effective, which results in the need for fewer and fewer actual employees (I saw a resent example from, I believe, Kentucky about a steel mill that produces wire, which thirty years ago would have employed a thousand people, but which has been replaced by one which produces the same amount of product but employs fourteen, none of them on the shop floor) and we have seen a gutting of unions, which were always the most effective way to force management to pay an equitable share of profits.  But people at the top, charged with analyzing and interpreting this kind of data, are “confused.”

Everyone is confused when no one is willing to face the realities of our new present.

The normally natural affinity for a comforting past has been distorted by the manipulations of identity politics and the toxic overuse of pointless nitpicking combined with an endemic ignorance of context to create a situation in which constructive change is becoming less and less possible, at least on a national level.  If every suggestion for change is met with swords drawn and blood oaths taken to resist, all possibilities fail. (A sensible approach to healthcare would be a single payer system, but it requires people to back up, give it some breathing space, and a chance.  Instead the immediate response among too many is “No!  That will lead to—!” Fill in the blank.  Death panels? Rationing? A complete destruction of a healthcare system which is, at the level of public service, is already dysfunctional? None of this is rational, but we have frightened ourselves enough that unless it is something we are completely familiar with we see it as threat.  But in the case of health care, no one is familiar with its workings, only its results, and not even then do most people know why the results are as they are.)

In the meantime—once more—we have a widening disparity between rich and poor which has opened a chasm.  Such chasms have happened before and they always precede revolutions.  The question for us will be, how bloody this time?

All because those who might ordinarily be trusted to supply meaningful context and useful direction are either ignored or just as helplessly clinging to a nostalgic hope of “returning things to the way they used to be”—on both sides.

Which leaves the vast majority of people in an awkward kind of stasis.  Waiting.  Struggling.  Clinging.

Into this moves the impulse to control absolutely.  Travel bans, surveillance, behavioral rule-making that does nothing but hobble, identification requirements that do nothing but isolate and segregate, public events that end up defining in-groups and shutting others out, calls for a kind of public piety that serves only to make some people targets while reassuring no one.  These are the components of tyranny, the necessary elements of fascism.  Both those terms have of late been used too freely and consequently are losing some of their prognostic power.  When you have a combination of too much fear and too little sense of sanity, that’s when the power mongers—who never, ever have solutions—have the best chance of seizing power.

As we move forward, it might be a useful habit to start asking of every proposal, “Who does this serve?”  If it does not serve you and yet you are inclined to support it, ask why?  And if the answer is, “It makes me feel safe from Those People” then it’s a good bet it’s a bad proposal, especially if “those people” are your neighbors.  Get in the habit of seeing things this way. Like any rule, it won’t track a hundred percent every time, but we have gotten into the opposite habit of thinking that any proposal that seems to benefit someone we either don’t like at the expense of people we like to pretend are “our people” (the rich, the powerful, the right skin color) or we believe will limit our “rights” in some vague way (and usually rights we either don’t have to begin with or are not really rights but privileges) are automatically bad.  Again, sometimes this might be true, but it’s a horribly limiting, fearful way to see the world and will lead ultimately to exactly what we think we’re trying to prevent.

Habits of thought anchored to the sand of a past that no longer pertains. Praising a history more hagiographic and mythic than factual. Preserving symbols that don’t mean what we think they do and believing that by protecting all this we will solve the problems of tomorrow.  We’ve been indulging this kind of nostalgic political nonsense for decades now.

Do you like where it’s brought us?

Money Lunatics

I learned this morning that the insurance industry has had essentially zero input in the new healthcare bill.

Let that sink it for a few moments.

The insurance industry has had zero input into the new GOP healthcare bill.  Which begs the question—who is this supposed to benefit? Not the medical industrial complex, certainly. By and large most of them have been expressing deep concerns all the way up to dystopic warnings to not do what the GOP is trying to do.

Only a couple of things make sense, one having to do with money, the other to do with power. True, usually the two go together, but sometimes they are actually separate issues. This may be one of those instances.

If it’s money, then all of the impetus for this is in the presumed tax breaks.* By now it ought to be obvious that all the benefit will accrue to the top one or two percent.  Sequestering tax dollars so they cannot be used for anything other than their designated purpose is seen by those with a banking mentality as wasteful, since it is money that cannot be used for investment in high return ventures—the sort which will only profit the same people doing the investing, and at the expense of everyone else.

No, no, don’t start with the whole trickle down nonsense.  After thirty plus years of it, by now only the insistently ignorant, uneducated, or blindly stupid can think trickle down works to anyone’s benefit other than those who already own the capital.

I can understand people not seeing how this happens—it is a very complex set of components which work together to funnel capital in essentially one direction—but that they fail to see it as a net effect dismays me.  Usually people know when they’re being screwed over and quite often by whom.  That so many people reject what they must intuitively know in order to vote for the very people ministering to this system baffles me.  Yes, often their expenditures go up, but at a certain level it is not by virtue of tax increases but increases in cost of living, which while related are not the same thing.

In this instance, however, so many of the very corporate entities which in the past have supported and benefited from this system are beginning to protest its continuation.  They must now see that their ruin is not far away if this system is not seriously modified if not entirely reshaped.

So why would their presumed servants not heed their concerns?

Power.  And not, in this instance I think, corporate power, but a confused apprehension of the nature of power.  Mitch McConnell and his ilk don’t need the money.  Their position in this regard makes little sense on any practical level.  The people they have been beholden to in the past, many of them, are telling them to stop, but the carnage continues.

The question then is—power to what end?

Look at the chief concerns expressed by many in this movement.  An adamant denial of climate change, even in the face of the military, which they otherwise claim to respect and wish to see strengthened, telling them that it is real and a threat to national security.  An obdurate rejection of the science of evolution, in spite of a medical industry informing that modern medicine is based solidly on the understanding provided by evolutionary science.  A singular aversion to social programs, when the large majority of their presumptive constituents support them.  A denial of any rights not already enjoyed by white males (and even a few of those they question), which is most clearly seen in the refusal to acknowledge women’s issues as worthy of their time and a consistent struggle to strip women of what rights they already have in terms of procreative self-determination.  (My own state, Missouri, is about to pass a measure to allow employers to fire anyone using birth control—as if this makes any sense on any level.  My question is, if a male employee is found using condoms, can he also be fired?  Will he?  Or is applicable only to women who may use their employer-provided insurance to buy birth control pills?)  And, by no means the last thing, but a big thing, a refusal to look at income distribution and do anything about the inequities that emerge out of systemic changes they championed which now many if not most of the beneficiaries of those systems are beginning to seriously question.

Taken at face value, it would appear to be a doctrinaire effort to turn the United States into a third world state.

Hyperbole aside, it may be based on two things—a perverse reimagining of Manifest Destiny and a marrow-deep conviction that all government, unless outwardly directed, is evil.

They know their version of the repeal-and-replace bill will hurt millions.  The rollbacks of Medicare will put children at risk.  How is this defensible?  Do they believe people will simply “find a way” that has nothing to do with government to make up for it? That might be plausible if at the same time they were doing something about income inequality, but instead they’re also trying to dismantle Dodd-Frank—without a replacement, by the way—which, while not a great law, is at least intended to protect noninvestors from the predations of the venture capital class.

No, this is designed to create an environment wherein those who are not powerful enough, in their view, will lose all ability to challenge them.  They will be poor, in ill-health, without access, voiceless.  The women in this pool will be constant victims, unable to control their reproductive destinies and therefore completely dependent on the “kindness” of males, who will no longer have the restraint of law or custom to govern their depredations.  Just like it used to be when abortions were done with coat hangars and women could be tossed on the street propertyless in the case of divorce.

This is a blanket repudiation of the responsibility of government to do anything for people who can’t already do it for themselves.

It is that simple.

Unless someone can offer another explanation?  I’ll even buy the idea of a resurgent Confederacy that’s getting even for having been forced to give up its slaves.  That may be part of this, but it’s hardly all of it.

Cutting taxes has become religion, and the faithful line up to support it even when down the road this will cost them.  Cost them in terms of more expensive goods and services, poor infrastructure, unreliable information networks, and employers who have the power practically of life and death over them.  Because somehow they have bought the idea that cutting taxes means they will have more money, when in fact most of them pay too little to see big pay-offs, the kind that might mean anything.

What is even more outrageous is the evident apathy of the people who are allowing these people to remain in power, because with few exceptions we are being shafted by a congressional majority kept in power by a quarter of the voting base. This is the worst expression of pandering I have ever seen and to no purpose, because now even many of those who voted for them are beginning to say “Wait a minute, now.”  But once they say they, they are outside, beyond the pale, no longer reliable.

These are people committed to a path with no regard for consequences because somewhere along the way they forgot why they are there.

You doubt me?  One fact alone demonstrates that they give not a damn about any of you.  McConnell and Company have been railing against the ACA (code name Obamacare) for seven years.  Repeal that terrible law.  Replace it with something that works.  We now see what they wish to put in its place, and it is far worse than what it is intended to replace.  This is not hard to understand since they came up with this in the last couple of months.

Which is the problem.  They have had seven years.  They have spoken to no one, consulted no one, done apparently no work at all on devising a replacement.  With all their resources, after seven years they could have produced a Sistine Chapel of health care.  Instead we have an off-the-shelf paint-by-number thing and they couldn’t even stay inside the lines. Seven years!  They never intended to do better.

They do not believe in the government they are part of.

For my money, they do not believe in America.  This has been a criminal abrogation of responsibility.

There is no reason.  They need to go.  

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

  • It is remotely possible that the GOP intends to starve the health care industry, seeing it as a rival in influence to other preferred programs.  If so, it’s a battle that will leave many people dead on the field and solve nothing.

Great Bear Politics

In all the chatter about Russian interference in the last election, one question keeps coming up. It’s never fully answered and because of that, the question as to whether or not such interference occurred remains in play.  At this point, it’s like climate change—everyone knows it happened, but how, in what form, and to what end are details the absence of which seem to insulate the president for the time being. That seems about to change with Comey’s testimony.

But that question—why, what does Putin hope to gain, what’s the pay-off?—bedevils people.  Especially people raised on spy thrillers and James Bond and post-Cold War conspiracy porn.

It seems fairly evident that any hacks of voting systems were ineffective in changing ballots or anything so direct.  What is important is the fact of the attempted hacking not the direct results on tallies.  Something was done, but because there does not seem to be the kind of result that makes sense in terms of past history and strategic movements of the sort we expect, the whole thing exists in a murk.

Which was the point.

Putin would like to “restore” Russia to the size and influence of the former Soviet Union.  He doesn’t necessarily want to resurrect the U.S.S.R. politically, at least not in terms of collectivist, Marxist ideology.  That nonsense doesn’t interest him.  He’s interested in power, pure and simple, and the one threat to that is still—the United States.

The telling moment was this whole mess in Ukraine. Not till the threat of NATO membership did Putin act.  Despite what Trump might say, NATO still has teeth. Membership in the alliance carries many benefits beyond simple military cooperation and mutual defense, although that is huge when you stop to think about it—the confidence that the member states will guarantee your sovereignty has tremendous ancillary benefits.  You can act in your own best interests without, or at least with much less, fear that those actions will be crushed by a neighbor. Which is what has happened to Ukraine.

Power and money, at this level, are two sides of the same coin.  The sanctions imposed on Russia by Obama have throttled a potential windfall from the Siberian oil fields.  Ukraine was a part of that.  There is a huge amount of money bottled up because of Putin violating Ukrainian sovereignty.  What he wants more than anything else is to get those sanctions lifted so the oil will flow.

But more than that, in the long run, he wants a free hand in his part of the world. He’s not exporting revolution, that’s no longer part of the Russian identity. He just wants to be a big, bad bear, in charge of his tundra, and able to play as an equal on the world stage. He wants what he possibly believes the West has been keeping Russian from since 1917.

In spite of the fact that over the last three decades we have hamstrung our ability to be a positive force in the world because we can’t see how making money and human rights conflict in the Third World, and because we are unwilling to put a muzzle on our corporations when they go into other countries and poison environments, undercut reforms, and damage the people we think we’re helping, it remains possible for us to actually do what we should have done after the Soviet Bloc collapsed, namely rebuild and stand for justice. We in fact do that, in limited but occasionally spectacular ways, but we rarely hear about any of it and too often we do a half-assed job because of our inability to see our way past our own paranoia and self interest.  (The chaos and mess in Iraq is an example of shortsighted greed undercutting what might have turned out to be a major success, but I won’t go into that here.)

What Putin wants most is for our political will to remain locked up in a struggle with itself over questions of money versus ethical action. We have been doing a reasonably good job of keeping ourselves disorganized and conflicted without his help.  But it is just possible that he sees what we do not yet see, and that is a younger generation coming up that is fed up with this kind of inanity that will put into power people who will act positively.  That will impact the money sector, certainly, but its biggest impact may well be globally with an America once more of the kind that created the Peace Corps and embraced a humanitarian mission. It might create an America willing to call Putin’s bluff.

Of course, it’s not just the United States.  And so we’ve been seeing signs of Russian interference in many elections, most recently in France (where it backfired and where the newly elected president publicly scolded Russia), not with a view to invasion or anything so dramatic, but purely for the chaos resulting that will distract the West from Putin’s actions.  Putin can do nothing but benefit from a West that is paying little or no attention because it is tangled up in petty feuds and ideological mudwrestling.  Undermining our confidence in our own electoral process will only feed that chaos and render us even less effective.

Did Trump and his people collude with the Russians to fix the election?  Probably not, at least not in those terms.  I think Trump really believed he could win without interference.  I think he may have thought he was playing Putin, accepting a hand that would gain him advantage with the Russians afterward.  Did he do it out any embrace of treason?  No, he did it because a deal was on the table and there was a lot of money to be made, and that is simply how Trump sees the world.  If he is impeached over any of this I suspect he will be genuinely surprised.  It was, after all, the Game, and he sees himself a master of that game.

What he will not understand is that his game is the least important one and the one Putin is playing is both more sophisticated and more devious and with stakes Trump just might not understand.

But the bottom line is likely to be, all Putin wants is what he now has.  We’re distracted, we’ve suffered a blow to the confidence in our systems and institutions, and the bitter squabbling over the right to make as much money as avarice demands continues but now with even less intelligent players.

 

Uncle Joe

Now we know what it’s like to have Uncle Joe running things.

I’ve been watching, as has the world, the Trump administration unravel. I have to say, anyone capable of making George W. Bush look like an exemplary president has a degree of chaos in attendance difficult to comprehend.

But this is our Uncle Joe.  In charge.  You know who I’m talking about. Most families have an Uncle Joe, who shows up at family functions and proceeds to dominate discussion with his opinions on everything from the world series to nuclear proliferation.  He will sit there and tell you how if he were in charge things would be different, he wouldn’t let those people get away with this or that, he’d solve the Middle East problem thus and so, and Russia? Hell, they’d be all the way back within the original borders of the Duchy of Moscovy! Uncle Joe knows what went wrong with Cousin So-n-so’s marriage to that bimbo and didn’t he say all along that it wouldn’t end well?  Uncle Joe thinks PBS is too much a family business and its sole purpose is to provide “traveling money” to people who live large for very little work by doing “educational” programming, which always seems to be about something America did wrong to some group we never heard of or showcases these scientific know-it-alls who want us to believe in climate change and evolution. Lotta nonsense, you ask Uncle Joe. And what’s with that new husband of what’s-her-name and all his nose-in-the-air posing? He talks about wine like he invented it and books no one reads and you never hear him cuss, can’t trust a guy like that, doesn’t drink beer, reads all the time, and tries to be polite to everyone, what’s he trying to do, make us all feel inferior? Uncle Joe thinks they should level Jerusalem so no one can have it and nuke North Korea and what are we wasting time worrying about Syria for when everyone knows Iran wants to conquer the world! And don’t get him started on civil rights, my gawd, give them people the vote and they think they have a right to burn everything down they don’t steal first…

Uncle Joe. Everyone tolerates him because Aunt Phoebe has been with him umpteen years and she’s as sweet as could be, always telling us “he doesn’t mean anything by it, but since he retired, you know, just ignore him,” which drives Uncle Joe to even greater heights of pomposity and displays of ignorance, because the last thing he wants is to be ignored. So he doubles down until everyone’s nerves are ground to an emory thinness and when is this party supposed to end?

But Uncle Joe has his fans, kindred spirits who feel just as marginalized by the complexities of a world that constantly demands their attention and threatens them with obsolescence every day. Sycophants of all ages who feel overwhelmed by matters they find barely comprehensible.  Uncle Joe has it down, as far as they’re concerned, he has a good bead on it all.

And that new husband with the wine-savvy and the book-learning?  He’s some leftist, socialist, social justice warrior who wants to take their jobs away and make them feel bad for being Americans.

Uncle Joe—uninformed by anything more current than the Korean War and the SALT talks, wondering why nobody sings like Frank Sinatra anymore, convinced the EPA is only there to take everyone’s job from them, and the solution to everything is the Big Stick philosophy (which not even Teddy actually used)—is now in the White House.  We have been watching, waiting for the moment when things rationalize, when he takes off the Sunday barbeque façade and begins acting like he knows something about how all this is supposed to work, and what we are seeing is everything promised in the campaign.  In charge and making a hash of it all.  There will be no moment when he reveals himself to be smarter than the act he put on to get people to vote for him.  This is what he is, this is what we have, and even many of his supporters are beginning to wonder what they were on back in November.

He is proposing to take an axe to just about everything worthwhile in this country.  And for those who somehow believe that in the wake of the destruction they will be better off, that somehow the EPA, the NEA, the space program, education funding, Pell Grants, and the FEC are the reasons they don’t feel secure and are at risk of losing their jobs and that by getting rid of these programs they will get back what they feel they’ve lost, all I can say is—

Actually, I don’t know what to say to them that wouldn’t be just more salt in a wound they don’t know how or when they received.  They don’t know.  Anything I might say to them would just be kicking them some more.

What I will say is, the media and the government agencies responsible for the conduct of the networks and the licensing and oversight—there are laws regarding public service and equal air time which have been pretty much ignored since the aftermath of Watergate.  You have obsessed over lowest-common-denominator irrelevancies for so long you actually think it’s news.  Your obsessive attention to someone’s emails and Uncle Joe’s antics abetted this situation because you didn’t do your job.  When someone as odious as Glenn Beck publicly acknowledges that he did it all wrong and is sorry for his part in gulling the public and contributing to this mess, you all know you have failed.  Not all of you.  A goodly portion of the print media tried.  But they’re hamstrung by their Owners, who can fire them at will for not toeing the corporate line, a situation allowed by the greed is good politics we’ve wallowed in since Reagan. Most people get their news by broadcast and the overwhelming majority of you failed us.  You’re the journalistic equivalent of ambulance chasers.

So Uncle Joe’s in the White House.  And we’re getting a lesson in just how fatuously stupid Uncle Joe has always been.

I hope we survive the lesson.

Perceptual Drift

Once in a while, something comes along to knock us out of our course, drives us to take a look at things from a perspective long discarded, and calls upon us to reassess.  Shocks that set us not only back but prompt the kind of deep re-evaluations we sometimes believe we do all the time. It’s fair to say one such shock is this election just past, which many of us, on both sides of the political divide, are puzzling over, conservatives no less than liberals.

Coming upon the heels of that we may be fortunate to find a book or two, hear a lecture, find revelation in an analysis that brings us up short and calls into question everything we took for granted for, well, decades.

Thomas Frank, known for his first book, What‘s the Matter With Kansas?, most recently published such an examination—Listen, Liberal is as complete an indictment of the Democratic Party and the assumptions of liberalism as I have seen in one place in many years. What is particularly troubling for me—and perhaps for many like me—is that all the points he raises are based on history which I knew, events that I remember, paths taken that at the time seemed inevitable, but which I never interpreted this way. I indulged a fairly banal process of explaining it to myself so that all these things became acceptable, even normal, in a way that now, looking at the shambles of where I always thought we were headed, I find bewildering. None of us, ever, are free of self-deception, especially in the face of specific alternatives we find unacceptable at the time.

Then Frederick Dutton, Democratic Party power broker, went farther: he identified workers, the core of the New Deal coalition, as “the principle group arrayed against the forces of change.” They were actually, to a certain degree, the enemy. Dutton acknowledged that it was strange to contemplate such a reversal of the moral alignment that had put his own party into power, but you couldn’t argue with history. “In the 1930s,the blue collar group was in the forefront,” Dutton recalled. “Now it is the white-collar sector.” Specifically: “the college-educated group.” That was who mattered in the future-altering present of 1971.

This was in the aftermath of the 1968 debacle of Democratic failure which put Richard Nixon in office and announced the coming Age of Plutocracy which has come upon us with the inevitability of an ice age glacier. The “student” movements of the Sixties aligned with the perceived betrayal of the Johnson Administration over Vietnam and the chasm of perception between generations that placed the youth movements on the opposing side against their traditionalist parents’ generation. The Republicans capitalized on the Old Guard vote in the wake of Johnson’s resignation and the year of political chaos that was 1968. The anger exploded in Chicago and the Democratic Party leadership saw the future as one in which the educated class would be the group to court.

Yet somehow this was seen as something that had to be done at the expense of labor, which was suddenly perceived as hopelessly archaic, a drag on change. Even though Labor, as an organized body politic, was still solidly Democratic, they were seen as a burden. Of course, they were also seen as a reliable source of votes. They were, in short, taken for granted.

This is the story Frank narrates in his new book and it is a hard thing to realize how correct he is. That basically the Democratic Party—and by extension America itself—left Labor in the ditch and committed itself to fostering a class of voters who are in many ways indistinguishable from the so-called upper 10%, if not in money then in aspirations.  And it is in those aspirations that the tale is told most painfully, because we have witnessed the betrayal even of them, despite the fact that they are exactly who the Future was supposed to be about.

I have a slightly different take on the path Mr. Frank describes. I remember all that with a different emphasis.

My parents were born during the Great Depression. One thing that bound many of them together, ideologically, was a conviction that their children and grandchildren would not have to suffer through what they did. They were solidly blue collar people.  College was a fantasy for most and I think it was understood that the upper reaches of white collar sinecure would always be for the few. But they would try. If at all possible, they would get their kids into college.  I remember my father telling me that he wanted me to be able to make a living without having to cut my fingers. Also, the assumption for many was that white collar was more secure, despite the realities at the time that union jobs represented the better security.

They succeeded beyond their wildest expectations, but it didn’t turn out the way they hoped, for many reasons.

The other thing was the Space Race.

I know, this seems an unlikely cause of our present calamities, but consider—with Sputnik, the United States entered into a technology showdown of unprecedented configuration. We were suddenly in a do-or-die competition over knowledge-based innovation. This was a Cold War initiative that got sold to the public in the guise of exploration—which it was, in many of its parts—so we could count political coup and perfect missile technology along the way.  Industry had to be conjoined with science and for the coming Age of Space we needed scientists and engineers—not Teamsters or Auto Workers. The National Science Foundation made a big push to transform education to meet the coming requirements. Education had to be remade.

The experiment turned out to be a disaster in slow motion. In spite of the success of the space program, teachers found themselves at odds with the new requirements, students were being short-changed in basics, the ability of the massive edifice of public education to turn on a dime and create the Future turned out to be a pie-in-the-sky wish. And of course in the midst of all this came the convulsions of the Sixties, by the end of which even the basic assumptions of education were called into question, along with all the confidence in government that had existed since FDR.  Unions were seen more and more as stodgy repositories of old school billy-club thinking (not without some justification—but there’s the rub, of course: all of this transpired with “some” justification), more in the way than not.

(My father was screwed over by his union over technological innovation. This was a real thing. Many unions sensed the coming problem all this innovation was bringing, because the basic question that was asked last if at all was “What about the displaced workers?”)

We were about to Build The Future. As of 1969 we were on the Moon, we were going to the other planets, space stations would soon be orbiting the planet, the future the future the Future!

And it didn’t happen.

Instead we were made ripe for a political realignment that sidelined Labor in the name of that Future which was then turned into a source of votes to undo the New Deal. Instead of going to Mars, we got the Shuttle; instead of universal healthcare, we got the benefits of skyrocketing medical technology along with skyrocketing costs the government refused to take on, leaving more and more people unable to pay for what should have been medical care the envy of the world; instead of full employment, we got a war on the poor and demands for “welfare reform” that created a permanent underclass of poor by which management threatens workers with banishment if they unionize or demand a fair share of the burgeoning wealth owned by fewer and fewer.

All aided and abetted by a Democratic Party that decided its political fortunes were best cast with those people who didn’t want to cut their fingers to make a living.

Frank calls it the Professional Class.  These are the people who don’t join unions because they more or less see themselves as independent contractors, quasi-libertarians, loners, wannabe entrepreneurs. Without benefit of the formal structure, they also make up one of the strongest unions in history because they keep nonmembers out more effectively than any organized union ever did.  They do it by social category, not by skill set or paid dues.  Although if one wished to see it this way, college degrees represent paid dues of an extortionate level. They like to believe they represent a merit-based social hierarchy, but in fact out-of-the-box skills trouble if not frighten them. The idea that someone may be able to “do what they do” and in some cases do it better without benefit of matriculation through the unofficial union membership program they prefer is inconceivable and anyone who comes along to show that this is an error on their part is not welcomed for his or her abilities but shut out because they have rough table manners.

And just as the base of the GOP seems unable to see how their party is not doing well by them, these shiny professionals are dismayed by their party’s inability to challenge the GOP on the state and congressional level because the Democratic Party is serving a class that is simply in most ways too like Republicans to draw a base of natural allies, namely Labor.

What should be a merit-based society has become what might be called a Credentialist Society, which is not the same thing, though in many respects the two resemble each other. Bernie Sanders’ call for free college is a blunt attack on the chokehold universities have on who is or is not to be allowed to participate. The price of that union card has grown all out of proportion to the benefits it confers on the membership.

There’s nothing anti-American about this, though.  While we boast of our founding as a nation of immigrants and a society based not on pedigree but ability, the fact remains that we have a history of exclusion, attempts to keep certain people out.  We are functional snobs.  Real equality scares us, because individually we fear we won’t measure up on a level playing field. Some of us, anyway. And both parties have played on that fear to achieve essentially the same result. While the Republicans are an Us vs. Them party for the rich, the Democratic Party has become an Us vs. Them party representing those who want to be the rich—and feel like they have a shot at it if they can just find a way to free themselves of their declassé roots.  Consequently, most of us have been left in the lurch.

A friend of mine who is a thoughtful conservative once told me, when I asked, that one of the things about the Democratic Party that troubled him most was its racism. I thought that was odd, since in recent years it was fairly obvious that most of the racists seem to adhere to the Republicans. I’ve since rethought that. Not that I believe the racism of the GOP is any less real, but the Democratic Party exhibits a kind of circumstantial racism, a racism by default because the economy has been engineered in such a way to assign poverty along broad racial lines, casting such people into labor pools that suffer the most when the jobs are lost and technology displaces them and the housing prices of the upwardly aspirant make it impossible for them to live in desirable neighborhoods.  The Democratic Party would rather fob them off with entitlements than do anything to address the economic situation that makes them, essentially, the Left Behinds.  The GOP at least is more honest in saying they aren’t interested in those people at all, if not in word then deed.

But going back to Thomas Frank’s argument, the Professional Class is where we all wanted to be.  And we didn’t want to be unionized because unions are drags on upward mobility—or so we believed.  We collaborated in the current situation by failing to understand our own preferences—our own prejudices.

Which has brought us to our current situation.

There is nothing natural about the the 1%. There is everything natural about their success.  Why?  Because that’s who we wanted to be.  Many of us.  And we went along with changes in our political reality because we were told that the Future was going to come about by virtue of innovation and technology and the concomitant methodologies of investment portfolios and fey capital.  We were played—by both parties in their own way, yes, but also by our own conceits.

There are a number of quibbles I have with Mr. Frank’s narrative—those technological innovations are not phantoms and are having very, very real effects on the way work is done. The reality we have now is that we simply do not need as many people to make all the things we need to have made.  When Obama talked about “shovel ready” programs, the reality he evoked no longer pertained.  When Roosevelt did that, building a highway could employ ten or twenty thousand men.  Today a hundred people can built that same road.  What we have failed to realize is that while the labor requirements of the mid-20th Century no longer pertain, neither should the economic structures of the 19th Century, which is what we have.  Just because a business owner can do the same work with less than half the workforce previously employed doesn’t automatically mean said owner gets all that money personally.  “Share in the wealth” used to mean one thing by participation in its creation, but the human component in that creation has changed and now it means something else.

In any event, I recommend Thomas Frank’s new book. Argue with it, by all means, but if nothing else it should dislodge preconceptions and open us to the possibility of redoing our political expectations.

Your Money

Richard Cordray, head of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, was interrogated on Capitol Hill by Republicans who want to shut his agency down. The agency was set up under Obama. Originally, it was to be run by Elizabeth Warren, but she received such violent resistance that she stepped aside, making way for Cordray, and then ran for the Senate, where she has been a burr under the GOP saddle ever. They might have been better off, by their own thinking, to leave her alone, but thinking long term doesn’t seem to be their chief strength.

You might ask why the CFPB is the target of so much bile. If you really don’t know, then you’ve never been strapped for money, in need of a loan, and then taken advantage of by a lender with all the morals of a Glyptapanteles. The CFPB stands in the way of banks picking pockets.

No, really, it’s that simple.

Back in the 1980s, we were thinking about buying a house. We went to our then bank to get pre-approved. Good to know what you can bring to the table when it comes time to actually buy. We sat with a lending officer who crunched our numbers and announced how much we qualified for. Both of us swallowed audibly. It was an absurd figure. I did some quick math and laughed.

“You’re joking,” I said.

“No,” he said. “This is was you qualify for.”

“But we can’t afford that.”

“Sure you can.”

“Not and continue to eat.” I then laid out our budgeting constraints for utilities, food, insurance premiums, and so forth. At the end of the month, we were shy the amount he had just given us and not by a small amount.

“That’s not our concern,” he said. “According to us, you can pay this much. How you manage the rest is up to you.”

We were appalled. I stopped short of telling him that was unethical to say the least, because I realized that according to him he was being ethical. He didn’t lie about anything—not technically, at least.  But the tables and formulae he used to arrive at his figures were industry standard. He was following the rules. It was entirely up to us to take him up on it.

But when you consider how innumerate people are and how little many of them understand about finance, added to the unadorned desire to own a home, you can see how being told by someone in authority—a banker—that you can afford the house of your dreams will roll right over any prudent misgivings you might have but cannot quantify.  This is what led to the 2008 meltdown—bad loans, made with the full awareness that many of the people taking them could not sustain them. Add to innumeracy the widespread illiteracy among the most vulnerable demographic groups—illiterate not in the sense that they cannot read a sentence, but in that they do not know how to comprehend complex writing—and you have a recipe for abuse.

Which is what happened.

The CFPB was established as a bulwark against such abuse. A barrier between banks that frankly don’t give a shit about people as other than ledger entries and people who are ill-equipped to defend themselves.  And really should not have to. We’re supposed to be a country of laws, but in the last few decades it seems that any law keeping a banker from your money is bypassed, repealed, set aside, ignored, or smashed into useless pulp by people who for no reason they seem willing or able to explain claim to be doing this “for the people.”

(To be fair, there were many people in lending at low to mid-level who knew this was going to be bad, some even tried to avert some of it, tried to act responsibly, and were told by higher ups to just make the loans. Many quit their jobs, unwilling to screw their customers, others were fired for being moral actors, a lot just shrugged and went ahead, because after all they had their own situations in need of tending.)

Now, if you, Representative Consumer, have a major case of the Wants and go to a bank to get a loan to satisfy it, and the bank says no, according to these guys over here (the CFPB or some similar agency) we can’t make those kinds of loans to people “like you” and you get annoyed because you still have your case of Wants, you might want to consider that you just can’t afford it. And if you do get that loan, eventually you may default and that will hurt other people.  If enough of you say be damned to “afford” and force the lending institutions to hand over the loans whether you can afford them or not, and most of you default, well, a lot of bad shit happens. (In reality, though, no one had to force the banks to do anything, because the real money was being made on bundling—part of the whole credit default swaps thing that even insiders had a hard time understanding—and it never mattered if anyone could “afford” their mortgage, it only mattered that they had one that could be bundled and sold with thousands of others.  Small banks got hurt, homeowners got hurt, but the major financial institutions made out, as they say, like bandits.)

So when critics of regulation claim that the 2008 crisis was really the fault of the people receiving those loans, they have a point.  Not much of one, but enough that it can’t be ignored.  But that point is like pretending one tree is a forest.  (Even so, if that one tree catches fire…)

When people who should know better—and do, actually—oppose regulations to keep you from being abused by a system that has no regard for your dreams or your situation, you should be very angry with those people.  You shouldn’t be voting them back into office.  They are not on your side.  They see you as sheep and they want to make it easier for you to get sheared.

Because those loans were not made in good faith. Those loans were bait. Those loans were made to be swallowed so all the rest of your money could be reeled in. Once you made one of those loans, your money ceased to be your money—for a long time.

We might debate that things are not that simple, but let’s be honest—they are that simple. A banker tells someone they can afford a loan that will consume up to 70% of their monthly income—or more—and if you don’t have the savvy to know you’re being suckered, while it may technically be your responsibility when you go ahead and take those terms, we all know an agreement based on a lie is in no one’s best interest.  Lie?  It depends on how you interpret “afford.”  If one side of the discussion is depending on the vagaries of language to get in the other side’s pocket, the result is dishonest.

Why are so many people so willing to be had?