August 6, 2017 § 2 Comments
Recently the media has noted a declining percentage of our neighbors who cling to their faith in the rectitude and promise of President Trump. The number is estimated to be 35%. I derive no comfort from these revelations for two reasons: First, an even lower percntage of our neighbors express faith in the government of our country, the only institution with the power to limit the authority of the President to continue his discredited policies. Second, in a population estimated to be 326,000,000, that means that 141,100,000 of our neighbors cling to their enthusiasm for President Trump.
These facts, to me, describe a country adrift, without effective guidance, in a perilous world. Multinational corporations and the United States military complex seem to be the only sources of effective power, a circumstance I regard with anxiety. It describes Germany in the 1930’s. It describes Egypt and Turkey, both of which are sinking into the hands of military-backed totalitarian governments.
Even our Supreme Court, the institution charged with the preservation of our Constitutional republic, appears to be in the hands of a majority who seek the ressurection of legal principles which opposed Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Justices like McReynolds and Field, in the 1920’s and ’30’s, sought to superimpose on the Constitution the limitations of what they referred to as “Natural Law” which, in practice always coincided with and favored the interests of business corporations and thwarted the collective efforts of the people, acting through their government
The Nature of Mass Delusions
Dangerous nonsense thrives when one or more of the following is true:
First, there is widespread disparity of access to accurate and pertinent information. For the first few centuries of life in our country, this disparity prevailed between the majority of our citizens who lived in generally isolated small villages and settlements and a minority who lived and did business in cities. Our literature and folk lore is replete with stories of the “rube” from the country who is the victim of manipulation by a “city sliker”. This phenomenon prevailed until the 1920’s when the automobile and the radio significantly erased this isolation.
Second, there is general access to many sources of information but no filter to insure its reliability. Britebart and numerous similar sources offer carefully crafted misleading and false information equally accessible with CNN, CBS, NBC and BBC. The Internet and the ubiquity of smart phones leave individuals no way to distinguish lies and baloney from truthful information.
Third, significant disparity of knowledge between the originator of information and its consumer and target. “Insider trading” and commercial advertising are examples of this kind of trolling for suckers.
Fourth, the educational background and store of knowledge of the consumer of information determines his or her ability to evaluate and choose sources of information.
To summarize: Our technology, a potential asset for the dissemination of knowledge, has, instead become a treacherous vehicle for demagogues to peddle their messages of hate, division and chaos and to undermine the fail-safe protections of our Constitution.
The Intellectual Ancestors of Trump
The self-absorbed buffoon, supremely oblivious of his own stupidity and groossly unsuited for the task he has chosen, is a character famously protrayed by talented writers and playrights.
The first great novel, Don Quixote de La Mancha, Cervantes’ two volume masterpiece, featured a hero who, after reading tales of dashing knights, fair maidens and thrilling exploits, failing to understand they were fictional, embarked on his own quest for fame and fortune. His efforts were, like our similarly self deluded President, fraught with a series of pratfalls and misadventures.
A few decades earlier, Shakespeare enlivened four of his plays with the antics and absurd exagerations of John Falstaff, who, like Trump, shamelessly misrepresented his accomplishments, ignored his critics and never acknowledged his errors, regardless of how plainly they were perceived by others.
Our own Nobel Prize winning novelist, Sinclair Lewis, immortalized a religious huckster who, again like Trump, transfixed large crowds with emotional performances, promising salvation and happiness to his listeners while offering them protection from threatened harm from their enemies, the devil, in Gantry’s tents personified as Democrats in Trump’s.
For a few decades, beginning in the 1920’s, a couple of cartoonists, Gene Ahem and Bill Freyse, entertained readers of the funny papers with the puffery and exaggerated exploits of Major Hoople in a comic strip named Our Boarding House. The Major, who was a sargent in the Civil War, promoted himself with endless bragging about his bravery, just as Trump never tires of regaling listeners with accounts of his financial successes, artfully omitting mention of his bankruptcies and the legal settlements of suits brought by victims of his tortious misconduct and desperately refusing disclosure of his income tax returns.
Another example of an earlier model of the Trump was Huey Long, the rags to riches Louisiana politician who epitomized Edgar Lee Masters’ warning through one of his characters in Spoon River Anthology: “Beware of the man who rises to power on one suspender.” Long was a demogogue who, like Trump, built an empire with extravagant construction projects. Less fortunate than Trump, Huey’s governorship was cut short by assassination. Also, unlike Huey, Trump had a handsome inheritence, not one suspender, to assist his rise to power. A novel about a character like Huey Long, also the basis for a movie, is All The Kings Men by Robert Penn Warren. Despite the similarities, Warren has stoutly denied his novel was a roman à clef .
Extraordinary Popular Illisions and the Madness of Crowds
Just as the Trump character has several fictional and real identifiable ancetors, his ability to mesmerize large numbers of people with his outsized promises of prosperity has similar historical examples. Several of these have been described in a fascinating book by Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Illusions and the Madness of Crowds. The book can be read online as a PDF file at https://vantagepointtrading.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/Charles_Mackay-Extraordinary_Popular_Delusions_and_the_Madness_of_Crowds.pdf
[Incidentally, according to Wikipedia, Bernard Baruch said that what he learned from reading this book,, prompted him to sell all his stock before the crash of 1929.]
The book invites skipping around among chapters listed in the table of contents. Unfortunately I was unable to find any way to skip directly to a particular chapter, so scrolling is required.
This book was published in 1841. I contains a well written account of about a dozen instances when greed motivated crowds of otherwise sane and sensible people to hand over their money to promoters of schemes so bizarre as to challenge the imagination. The events occurred in the 17th and 18th centuries when education levels varied significantly according to class and communication technology was primitive by our standards, thus leaving ordinary people without any means of checking the accuracy of tales of foreign lands or in places inaccessible to the public, like laboratories, mines and business offices.
The circumstances were, as a result, ripe for promoting promises of wealth based on incomplete and sometimes deliberately false information.
Here are a couple of examples: Tulipmania: descibes the obsession of British citizens with tulip bulbs from Holland and the amazing marketing of different colors of tulips, leading speculators buy and sell popular species at inflated prices until the market collapsed, leaving a wreakage of lost fortunes.
The South Sea Bubble is a more famous example. Tales of gold located in Peru and Mexico served as a basis for a partnership between the British government and some private investors in ventures promising great profits from access to those mines. Shares were marketed in the project and crowds of English men and women risked fortunes competing for those shares, whose value inflated significantly until the scheme collapsed, leaving prominent members of Parliament and countles private citizens victimized and impoverished. This occurred before limited liability laws protected investors to the extent they do now. The consequences were, therefore, more catstrophic than they would be today..
The South Sea Bubble, like public confidence in the financial prowess of Trump, is an amazing exemple of publc gullibility because: (a) At the time of the Bubble, Peru and Mexico were part of the empire of Spain and, hence, not available for exploitation by the British. and (b) Trump’s claims of financial prowess depend entirely on the claims by him and his family, all made while vigorously opposing efforts to enable public access to his income tax returns.
This morning I watched Fareed Zakaria’s program on CNN. He is, for me, close to Paul Krugman as a source of intelligent information about what is happening. During his opening remarks he spoke of a new book by Mark Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics. I have ordered a copy.
Lilla’s message is, according to Zakaria: The Democratic Party needs to broaden its appeal beyond the issues of race, ethnicity and abortion. He does not argue that these issues should be abandoned, but those who disagree, for example, with abortion rights should not be excluded from the appeal of the Party. Lilla is a Catholic and is not a supporter of abortion rights but he regards himself as a liberal .
I am not making any judgment, obviously, because I haven’t read the book. I have, however, expressed before my frustration about the Democratic Party’s indifference to the rights of unions.
In that way, I feel like Lilla: I find no comfortable place in political efforts which, in my opinion, fail because they treat the working class as in need of education, deserving rebuke for their lack of enthusiasm for racial justice, and as a group having limited relevance in this age of technological sophistication. I attribute the loss of the recent election to these policies and to the fact that neither the Clinton nor the Obama administration paid any attention to the rights of working people.
Welfare programs and training school scholarship programs do not empower the beneficiaries. We are suffering because the only empowered force is corporate wealth. Hiring more experts in money raising and TV ad design is not going to solve our problem.Empowering the working class is the only weapon that will change the political dialogue. That will take years and it’s way past time for the Democratic Party to awaken and begin the process.
In the meantime, I have enjoyed a few hours of placing our present embarrassment in the White House in some kind of historical and sociological context.
April 7, 2016 § 2 Comments
The Democratic Party’s Fear of Change
Last February, I expressed my despair in an essay that viewed Bernie Sanders’s heroic effort to convert the Democratic Party into a relevant organization as foredoomed. His continued successes during the past six weeks have re-kindled some of my excitement but I still regard his chances of becoming the nominee of the Democratic Party as unlikely. The Democratic Party’s past struggles with Communists in the 30’s, Dixiecrats in the 40’s and “Reagan Democrats” in the 70’s have prompted it to insure against fundamental change by adopting procedural barriers designed to limit change.
As a result, it is virtually impossible to make radical changes within the Party in its present form.
Can Violent Revolution Succeed?
I have spent some time considering the nature of the people whose lives inspired me. Leon Trotsky, Mao, Emiliano Zapata, Poncho Villa, Patrick Pearse, Che, Malcolm X – I read about these men and their violent lives. They acted out my anger and thrilled me with their reckless courage. The poetry and the music that celebrated their efforts as well as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and SNICK – these were the sources of the emotional part of my life during several decades of unsuccessful efforts as a political organizer and a few individual episodes of private law practice. The key word in that sentence is “unsuccessful”. I never turned any of my dreams into reality. Like Bernie Sanders, I was often counseled to be “more realistic” and “practical” but, somehow, that advice was never seductive for me.
I never actually met any of the men who inspired me. I did meet a few people who had been involved in some of the exciting history in America in the 30’s. I knew and was enthralled by a woman who was involved in some of the Trotsky-inspired efforts of the Communist Party. Like thousands of others, her heart was broken when Stalin signed the Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler’s Germany. I had a long chat with a man who rode a boxcar into Seattle to join an IWW strike there. I became friends with Magdaleno Dimas, whose participation in the Farmworkers’ Strike in Starr County changed him from a violent man with a criminal past to an idealist willing to sacrifice himself on behalf of the campesinos who were trying to improve their lot through collective nonviolence. Magdalena’s life ended tragically after he was arrested and jailed in Torreon after trying to make a marijuana deal to raise money to finance the Starr County huelga.
The Lessons of My Past
As I look back over the decades of my life, I see that those who actually sparked changes that changed the lives of thousands of people suffering the injustices of capitalistic greed and thievery were nonviolent people whose lives, while they were not typical of the society in which they lived, were only lawless in ways that were designed to invoke moral outrage and never in ways intended to physically injure anyone: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Ralph Yarborough, e.g..
If Bernie Sanders is not the nominee of the Democratic Party this year, I think he should continue to organize and speak in support of a new organization within the Democratic Party. Its name should proclaim its allegiance to the Party, but it should also identify it as a haven for people who yearn for and demand fundamental change in the Party and the United States of America. It should focus on a statement of goals and principles, not on a hierarchical organizational structure. It should make full use of technology to build a web of like-minded people in the U.S.. The designers should study Alcoholics Anonymous as a model. It should be built around colleges and universities, but it should use the energy found there to expand into diverse neighborhoods. It should avoid any alliance with any religion. Anyone willing to conform their efforts to those consistent with the statement of goals and principles should be empowered to create local “study groups” or “action pods”. An appropriate name would be the Bumble Bee Group and local groups could be organized around “Hives” and “Cells”.
Each cell should meet once a week or once a month. Dues should be $2, payable at each meeting. A treasurer should open a bank account and keep $1 to finance the Cell expenses (literature or rent for a meeting place); and $1 should be sent to a national office. The national office should be limited to a skeleton staff authorized only to maintain orderly books of account. A newsletter should be created and circulated to all Cells.
Those financially able to do so should be encouraged to support these efforts, but their contributions should not entitle them to any authority to dictate policy or procedure. Contributors should be entitled to choose whether or not to be identifiable. Contributions would not be tax deductible.
Anonymity should be optional but members should be encouraged to establish a digital connection to the National Office and to other Cells and Hives in a city or county. All communication should be by email or iMessage. Hacking would become a constant threat and some kind of security and password protection would have to be designed.
These groups should become active participants in the governance and affairs of the Democratic Party and members should become candidates for precinct chair positions and executive committee positions. Democratic Party candidates should be supported if their goals and principles conformed to those of the Hives and Cells.
I offer this as an alternative to allowing the organizing done by Bernie Sanders to be wasted and embalmed in the dustbins of the Democratic Party. Bill Clinton hobbled the Democratic Party with his Democratic Leadership Council. Bernie offers a way to respond with an organization to make the Democratic Party an agent for change, not a permanent role as the lesser of two evils.
January 19, 2016 § 2 Comments
Democrats are faced with a choice: Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. [I do not believe Martin O’Malley has a chance to be the nominee. I will ignore him in the following discussion.] I have discovered a resource online I believe provides significant information relevant to that choice. I urge my readers to review carefully the information posted there. Here is a link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endorsements_for_the_Democratic_Party_presidential_primaries,_2016#Hillary_Clinton
This site consists of 10 or 15 pages of tightly packed lists of people who have formally endorsed Hillary Clinton. They are separated into labeled categories: Former Presidents (one listed); Governors and former Governors; Senators and Congressmen; State Legislators; Local Officials; Members of the DNC; Celebrities; Actors; Musicians; Writers; . . . . On and on and on and on….
This is a list of the status quo winners in all categories. It is indeed an impressive list. It obviously is the result of a major recruitment effort.
After you have been suitably impressed by Hillary’s supporters, you might be interested in Bernie Sanders’ list of endorsements. It is sparse and brief. Here is a link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endorsements_for_the_Democratic_Party_presidential_primaries,_2016#Bernie_Sanders
My Reaction to The Endorsements
I believe this information is important because it suggests a basis for choosing between these two candidates. It seems obvious to me that those who have been winners in our present system of distributing and exercising political, social and economic power probably have limited enthusiasm for making fundamental changes in those arrangements. The terms “incrementalism” and “tweaking” seem appropriate to describe the policies they will likely find comfortable and satisfying. So, if you share those ideas of what the Democratic Party should seek for the next four or eight years, Hillary is your logical choice. If elected, she will become the “Tweaker in Chief”.
If, instead, you are dissatisfied with the status quo and want some significant changes in the balance or power between the powerful and the powerless – some re-defining of the proper role of government as a shield and a weapon against the impoverishment of workers and the enrichment of the rentier class – then you might be less impressed by the winners’ choices and might choose a candidate whose history and rhetoric is less attractive to the present winners. Bernie may be a little hazy about guns, but his intentions about the status quo are crystal. And the difference between him and Obama is that he will spend all his energy mobilizing the grass roots behind his policies. The campaign will never end for Bernie. His vision is of a movement, not a campaign tent show to be dismantled the day after election day.
But What About Electability?
I was born at night, but not last night. I suffered through the debacles of McGovern, Dukakis and Mondale. I have plenty of past political deals and compromises of which I am not proud. So I understand that some honorable liberals are thinking, “Sure, I like Bernie and he’s right, but I’m afraid he can’t win. Half a loaf is better than none.” I suggest that this is a situation in which, as the stock market disclaimer goes:
“Past performance is no guarantee of future success.” So, here is my pitch:
The previous failures occurred when two powerful political forces were active:
One, racism was rampant and powerful. Remember the GOP’s “Southern Strategy”?
Two, Democratic Party candidates were anti-war when wars were politically powerful issues. The “Communist Menace” and “Viet Nam”. Remember?
Today neither of those dogs will hunt. We have elected a black president and the demographics of America have changed and are changing. It is no longer smart politics to “play the race card”.
The only war politically relevant now is the war against ISIS. Obama has done a good job waging that war and the recent experience with GW’s war in Iraq has cured the public’s gullability about sending American troops to war. Also, “trickle down” economic policy has been tried and proved to be a fairy tale. The white people over 40 who have had the “American Dream” snatched from them will be hard to convince that rewarding the rich will be helping the “job creators”.
This may be the “tipping point” we have been waiting for and Bernie Sanders may be the “tipper” whose time has come.
But What About All Those Hillary Endorsers?
So far as concerns the Wall Street tycoons who have endorsed Hillary, Bernie will never get their support if he is the nominee. Most of the rest of those Hillary supporters, however, will fall in line, led by Hillary and Bill Clinton and Barak Obama, to support Bernie for president. And if the GOP is suicidal enough to nominate Trump or Cruz, Bernie will look like the epitome of rationality to both Democrats and independents.
Well, that’s my argument. If I turn out to be right, it may prove the old East Texas saying that “Even a blind hog finds an acorn sometimes.” My record for picking winners is abysmal but maybe this is my year.
May 29, 2015 § Leave a comment
Last Thursday evening I read three articles. two new and one old, that, for me, were like being in the woods at night, lost and lonely, stumbling over fallen tree branches, feeling fear that began in the pit of my stomach and ended in my throat, then emerging on to a clearing where, a half mile away, a coal oil lamp cast a pale yellow glow from a window. Sometimes the future and the past loom so dark that the friendly light of intelligent hope is more comforting than stimulating.
One of the articles was a biographical character study of Bernie Sanders, the man with a distinctive accent and usually unkempt hair; the socialist candidate for the Democratic Party’s nomination to become president of the United States. Here is a link: Sanders . It was easy for me to identify with him, not only because of his political beliefs but also because of his personal history. He spent the early years of his adult life engaged in futile political efforts. He wrote articles advocating policies that were generally ignored by his fellow citizens of Vermont. He lost four statewide races, two for state senate and two for governor. He was finally elected mayor of Burlington, his first job with a salary sufficient to finance a middle class life style.
I can identify with that history, although, instead of losing statewide races as a candidate, I worked on the staff of candidates who lost statewide races. My record was 0-6.
I found the title for this essay in a vignette from Bernie’s early life. When he was without a job, which was often, his friends took him in. One was Richard Sugarman, who shared many of Bernie’s beliefs. Every morning Bernie would greet his friend, not with “Good Morning”, but with “We’re. Not. Crazy.”
Albert Einstein’s Gentle Socialism
The Bernie Sanders article included an embedded link to a 1949 essay written by Albert Einstein entitled “Why Socialism”. Here is a link: Einstein Like the Bernie Sanders story, Einstein’s essay was a beckoning lamplight seen from a dark place. It is the only reasoned argument for abandoning capitalism I have read that did not assume violent revolution would be necessary.
Einstein, instead, describes a dichotomy of needs and influences that shape our lives: The drive for individuality, what Abraham Maslow later called “self actualization”, and an equally competitive identification with and support for the needs of society. He contends that those different forces can be accommodated and acknowledged without sacrificing either one. The secret is awareness of and respect for those forces in others and willingness to mobilize government’s power to support them.
This essay captivated me. Einstein acknowledges his limited background in social science but he insists that the same rigorous discipline required by physics and astronomy can be applied to social and economic issues. He charmed me with evidence that he had studied Thorstein Veblen and relied on Veblen’s evolutionary analysis of our progress, or not, from what Veblen called the “predatory phase” of human development. Einstein contends that the democratic socialism he advocates would facilitate emerging from that “predatory phase” to one less brutal, more intelligent and more capable of satisfying our need for security and contentment.
Einstein also, having observed the results of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, acknowledged the problem it poses. Here is the somewhat sad and plaintiff penultimate paragraph of his essay:
“Nevertheless, it is necessary to remember that a planned economy is not yet socialism. A planned economy as such may be accompanied by the complete enslavement of the individual. The achievement of socialism requires the solution of some extremely difficult socio-political problems: how is it possible, in view of the far-reaching centralization of political and economic power, to prevent bureaucracy from becoming all-powerful and overweening? How can the rights of the individual be protected and therewith a democratic counterweight to the power of bureaucracy be assured?”
How indeed. I know the answer. We have it in our hands. It is our Constitution. It may require an amendment or two but the concept has been left to us by our forefathers. With two amendments and commitment to rigorous enforcement our Constitution would be an adequate response to Einstein’s question.
The two amendments? First, “The words ‘person’ and “people’ in this Constitution apply to living natural persons. They do not apply to any legally created entity. Neither do they apply to a person not yet born.” Second, “In this Constitution the protection of freedom of expression does not apply to the spending or investment of money.”
With those two amendments, our Constitution is, I believe, entirely adequate to prevent government bureaucracy from becoming a threat to individual freedom. Political vigilance and common sense would be required and an independent federal judiciary would, as always, be essential but those requirements apply to any government scheme. Soviet Russia had an admirable constitution but it was useless because the judiciary was powerless to enforce it and the police were allowed to ignore it.
Dean Baker’s Demolition of TTP
The third article that illuminated my dark feelings was a critical analysis of the arguments for the Trans Pacific Partnership by Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic Policy and Research, a Washington DC think tank. I have expressed my own hostility toward this “Partnership” in a previous essay posted here. Dean Baker adds authority and devastating contradictory data to support his identification of this proposal as a threat to the fair distribution of international trade benefits. Here is link: Baker
The House of Representatives will vote on “fast tracking” this abomination within the next couple of weeks. The Senate has failed to kill it. We can only hope that the Democrats in the House will save Obama from being responsible for burdening our working class with this unjust agreement for the next two or three decades. If he succeeds, he will join Bill Clinton on the list of presidents who betrayed the hope and promise that motivated those who voted for them.
Conclusion and a Personal Note
I feel I owe an apology for the emotional language in this effort. I have been affected by the bombardment of hopelessness that has pelted me recently. Netanyahu’s re-election followed by his empowering the most passionate politicians determined to convert Israel into a theocratic bully was a disappointment. David Cameron’s Conservative Party wipe-out of the British Labour Party in the recent election was another. The growing strength of ISIS and the apparent unwillingness of Iraq’s military forces to effectively oppose it is another. The dismemberment of Syria accompanied by the threat of ISIS involvement there is another.
My real nightmare is the probable symbolic terrorist attack in the United States or a mass beheading of Americans broadcast in living color. Other countries, Britain, Spain, Holland – bear such attacks and react with mourning and redoubled efforts at prevention. In America our leaders choose endless war and thousands of needless deaths as the appropriate response. I’m sure ISIS is aware of this grotesque fact. I fear they will use it to their advantage.
All this bad news comes at the beginning of what promises to be an extravaganza of hateful stupidity from a jackass choir of Republicans eager to compete for the allegiance of the lowest common denominator tranche of the American right wing. And who will be our St. Jeanne d’Arc? Why Hillary from the House of Clinton of course! Her head is already bloody but unbowed and her baggage, packed in a truckload of trunks just waiting to be unpacked by reporters, political archivists and GOP flacks, follows her everywhere. But, having spent a billion dollars, she may become our next president. And if not, we will be led by Jeb the Timid or Brash Young Rubio or, worst of all, by the union scalp hunter, the Bible thumper from Wisconsin, Scott “Bring ’em On” Walker.
I plan to stay sober for the next seventeen or eighteen months but only by many repetitions of the Serenity Prayer.
September 27, 2013 § Leave a comment
My Lucy’s Football Complaint
In July and August I spent too much time reading, thinking and writing about my country’s policies and activities that were, to me, depressing and shameful. During the Bush-Chaney-Rumsfeld-Yoo years I was angry but not depressed. I was comforted by the hope that their excessively wanton brutality would produce a commensurate degree of righteous reaction that would propel forward the forces of justice and decency.
When Barack Obama was elected I was thrilled. I thought a man of conscience and intelligence would use the ingenious organizing ability that produced his victory to transform the Democratic Party into a political coalition that could dominate American politics for a generation. He took office when the financial power brokers had been brought down by his predecessor. They were coming to Washington, hat in hand, desperate to avoid an implosion.
I assumed , as a student of history, he would recognize that he was in a position similar to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who became President when the policies of Herbert Hoover and the Republicans had capsized the American economy. FDR used that crisis to change the relationship between capitalism and government and to brand Hoover and the Republicans for decades as the enemies of working class Americans.
Instead, Obama used the power of government to pay off the debts that profligate Wall Street bankers had incurred, restore the auto industry, and leave working class Americans without jobs or forced to accept deep pay cuts and menial work to avoid starvation. Far from identifying and branding those responsible for the economic debacle, he made speeches and spoke at press conferences about “looking forward, not dwelling on the past.”
Obama and his team used government generosity to enable Wall Street bankers to recover quickly from the near bankruptcy of their casino. The bonuses and multimillion dollar salaries have climbed to galactic heights. This was done regardless of how politically unpopular it was. No political price was regarded as too high to accomplish this feat.
That attitude was in sharp contrast to the cautious and timid attitude toward other politically difficult projects: Changing labor laws to enable and encourage the resurrection of the labor movement was not even considered – much too difficult- now is not a good time-etc. etc. etc. . Insisting on solving our health care problem by extending Medicare, one of the most popular government programs in the history of the United States, to all. No, that might be branded as socialism – not practical – would never pass in Congress. Well then, if the insurance industry must be left to make useless profits from providing health care, how about a “public option” to place limits on how egregiously they can sabotage the distribution of health care? “Well, we tried that, but couldn’t get enough votes.”
The one political strategy that was never considered: Propose fair and just policies. If they are not adopted, continue to insist on them. Attack those who oppose them. Praise and reward those who support them. Never stop organizing and attacking. Relentlessly target the leaders of the opposition. Name them. Take pains to distinguish them from those who are merely stupid, ambitious or both; they may choose to abandon their opposition, especially if it appears likely to lose.
President Obama is a reasonable person. I think his fatal flaw is his belief that proposing reasonable solutions to problems will win arguments. As a trial lawyer, I shared that belief and, more often than not, I found that juries were more likely to favor the litigant who presented a reasonable argument rather than one who relied on bombast and assaults on the credibility and good faith of the opponent. It didn’t always work, but my average was respectable. I really had no choice. Like Obama, I was never able to sell myself as a shouter, a bully or a fist-shaker.
Political contests, at least those in which I have been actively involved and the ones that have been waged in Washington for the past five years, are wars, not trials. There are few rules and the rules that apply are routinely ignored. The folk description of them is that they are fought by people “down for money, marbles and chalk.” Obama’s obsession about avoiding the stereotype of the “angry black man”, I think, led him to begin negotiations with ruthless and unprincipled demagogues with compromises that, if they were ever appropriate, should have followed, not preceded, a hard fight. I think he brought a knife to a gun fight.
His soaring rhetorical claim that we live, not in blue states and red states, but in the UNITED STATES, was a noble effort to moderate political conflicts. He should have recognized, however, that it did not describe the kind of political viciousness that characterized the political arena of Washington D.C. in 2008 – 2013,
At my age, I am not naive about politicians. No elected official has proved satisfactory to me. Ralph Yarborough came close and my admiration for him more than compensated for every instance when he did such things as sponsoring James Latane “Soapy” Noel, his college room mate, for appointment to a federal judgeship in Houston, who turned out to be an abysmal failure when Houston’s public school integration depended on his judgment. Lyndon Johnson fought every effort to create a viable and dominant liberal Democratic Party in Texas. Bill Clinton’s “triangulation” cleverness spawned the Democratic leadership Council and NAFTA without any protection for the rights of workers, not to mention his enthusiastic embrace of of Wall Street deregulation. My experience with these men taught me, once again, that Democratic Party politicians can do just as much damage as Republican politicians. Even Hubert Humphrey, after a lifetime of dedication to liberal ideals, ran for president wearing LBJ’s Vietnam warbonnet after claiming the nomination in Chicago during a police riot.
So, I have callouses on my backside from running full-tilt toward Lucy’s football during political football games. That’s why Obama was so depressing. I thought we had, at last, elected a steadfast Lucy. Like they say, “There’s no fool like an old fool” Or, as I’ve often said, “like an Old Fart Lawyer.”
The Affordable Care Act
I am hopeful that the ACA will not be a “train wreck”, as predicted by its critics. I am sure the GOP will do everything it can to sabotage it and call attention to every negative aspect of its implementation. The fact that thousands of Americans die each year due to lack of health care makes the stakes too high for betting against it, a mere detail that will have no influence on those who want it to fail. The only human life that concerns them is life in the womb.
Having said that, I believe the ACA is a solution that would have made sense in 1942, but is inappropriate in 2013. When millions of men were withdrawn from the workforce to fight WWII, America was in desperate need of manpower to produce the goods and services vital to the war effort as well as the sustenance of the civilian population. Competition for workers was fierce. Wage levels were frozen. So, employers, primarily industrial employers, began offering health insurance as an inducement to attract and retain workers.
During the New Deal years, as a result of the Wagner Act, many industrial workers were represented by unions. So, a pattern of negotiated arrangements for job benefits was developed. Neither employers nor unions wanted to create machinery for handling and adjusting claims, so a large health insurance industry was created to handle this new demand for health insurance.
If the ACA had been adopted then, it would have been a sensible legislative regulation of these new arrangements. Dramatic changes have occurred since then. Many of those industrial giants no longer exist. The vitality of unions has disappeared in the face of changes in federal law and a failure of the Democratic Party to insist on protection of the rights of workers to organize for collective bargaining. What we now have is a giant insurance industry, regulated lightly by state governments, and employers free to make choices regrading health insurance for their employees, usually free from any significant bargaining through unions. The Employment Retirement Income Security Act, usually designated ERISA, does not require employers to make health insurance available to its employees, It does include some requirements if the employer chooses to do so. It does not, however, prescribe minimum levels of benefits which must be offered.
Another dramatic change occurred when Medicare was created to guarantee health care for those over the age of 65. That law has become a model of government service and is wildly popular. It proved that government can establish and implement a successful program providing health care to a large population, even a population of elderly people whose health care needs are well above those of the general population. Choosing to leave health care in the hands of insurance companies instead of extending an already established model government program was dumb.
Having stated my now-irrelevant bitch, I acknowledge at least two positive developments resulting from the flawed process that produced the ACA. First, the Republican Party has obsessively and enthusiastically branded itself as opposed to the law. That means that, when the law becomes effective, and millions of Americans discover that they have access to health insurance at prices they can afford, they will, perhaps, begin to question their loyalty to Republican politicians who tried to prevent it. I am not sure about this. American voters are notoriously willing to vote for politicians whose policies are harmful to them. This masochistic stupidity is an endemic mental disability linked to American politics.
The second positive result is that Barack Obama has, finally, responded with some degree of anger and moral outrage to the attacks on the ACA . This morning, September 26, 2013, less than a week before the ACA becomes an active program affecting every American, after years of hysterical assaults by the GOP, thousands of hours of lies about the law, and a twenty-hour harangue by a Jackass Senator from (of course) Texas, our President, in a speech to a community college crowd in Maryland, displayed a little bit of outrage and struck back. He didn’t name anybody. He wouldn’t want to spoil the collegiality he enjoys as he works with his “friends across the aisle”. But he did mention that the Republicans have been lying about the ACA. That is a step forward.
Here is my hope: Americans have now been promised health care. The promise has been made by their government. When the insurance industry allows its greed to interfere with providing that health care, the people will demand action from the government. At some point it will become so obvious that even American voters will realize that health care for which government is responsible should be managed and administered by government. The ACA will transition to Medicare. As usual the question is: How much pain will be necessary to energize the electorate to demand it?
A Mind Meld and a Grok
As stated, after reading about the NSA trashing of the 4th Amendment; the secret FISA court and its secret jurisprudence, I was angry and depressed. The consensus seems to have been accepted that, given our modern technology, we are doomed to submit to government’s limitless access to our private lives, all in the name of protecting us from a constantly expanding array of terrorists in a state of boundless and endless martial law.
I followed that investigation by reading Jeremy Scahill’s book describing the government’s “global war on terror” in which the bombing of innocent civilians is accepted as collateral damage. Bypassing the Bill of Rights and assassinating American citizens without warrant, indictment or trial is explained as an acceptable tactic in the GWOT. “Signature strikes”, firing missiles and dropping bombs on people based on the “life pattern” of some in their midst is said to be justified on the basis of the probability that terrorists will be killed.
These revelations about the policies of my President and my country depressed me. After a few days, I tired of thinking about them. One of my favorite bumper stickers states, “Reality is for People Who Can’t Handle Drugs and Alcohol”. I am one of those people, so a bottle of Jack Daniels was not an option.
I remembered that, for most of my life, beginning in Elementary School, I was almost always in the middle of reading a novel. That changed a few years ago and I began reading non-fiction. I decided I needed a break from all this serious stuff. I needed to escape.
Crime and Punishment
In 1997, my mother-in-law, whom I loved and admired, gave me a handsomely bound copy of “Crime and Punishment”, Fyodor Dostoevsky”s psychological novel. It had lain unread on a bookshelf for sixteen years. I chose it to begin my recovery. Dostoevsky was a remarkable person. He was a dissident in the 1850’s. He was imprisoned and sentenced to death. He and two other prisoners were taken to the prison yard, tied to stakes, a firing squad was assembled and the first two of three orders were given to carry out the sentence, when a messenger from the Tsar arrived breathlessly to announce that their death sentences had been commuted to terms of imprisonment in Siberia.
[Spoiler Alert. I assume that most of you have read this classic, so this is probably unnecessary. But, the following paragraphs will disclose the ending of the novel.]
Dostoevsky became a popular writer after surviving that term of imprisonment. “Crime and Punishment” was published in 1861, when our civil war was beginning. The main character, Rodion Roskolnikov, a young penniless lapsed student, uses an axe to kill an old lady who operates an amateur pawn business, as well as her mentally disabled sister who unexpectedly witnesses the murder. The novel describes Roskolnikov’s struggle with his conscience and the fear that ultimately drives him to confess to his crime and accept imprisonment in Siberia. The novel is actually two narratives. One is in Roskolnikov’s head and the other one involves his family, his friends and a number of protagonists in the government’s criminal justice establishment.
The psychology is presented in terms of a philosophical conflict. Roskolnikov initially tries to convince himself that he is a member of an intellectually superior group of people, whose talents entitle them to ignore ordinary rules of conduct applicable to their inferiors. He tries to analyze his crime as the just sacrifice of a couple of worthless women in order to enable him, a person of significant potential, to survive. This hubris is a barrier that prevents him from having an intimate relationship with either his male friends or a young woman, Sonya, who falls in love with him.
The novel, set in St. Petersburg, is an engaging description of a part of Russian society. There are lengthy passages describing Roskolnikov’s thinking, similar to “stream of consciousness” narration, except that it is written in the third person rather than as a transcript of the thoughts going on in Roskolnikov’s head.
Reading the book had its desired effect. For several hours I was in Russia, feeling the cold, tense as the main character edged closer and closer to a resolution of his inner conflict, while a parallel effort was going on as a smart law enforcement official came closer and closer to trapping him.
After his confession and banishment to Siberia, Sonya moves there to be with Roskolnikov. Finally, after several years, he accepts her love, casts aside the heartless intellectualism that kept him aloof and alone, accepts responsibility for the crime he committed and becomes an adult human being.
Lie Down in Darkness
Over fifty years ago, Larry Goodwyn gave me a priceless gift. He told me about William Styron. I read his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness when I was thirty-one or two. As part of my recovery from too much reality, I re-read it. It still blew me away. The astonishing thing about it is that Styron wrote the book in two years at age twenty-two to twenty-three. How he managed to acquire, at that young age, the knowledge and insight to describe, in words carefully crafted and filled with imagery, the musings, dreams and fears of a fifty-year-old woman and her twenty-year-old daughter, is beyond my understanding. I don’t pretend to have that ability, but Styron’s descriptions have the feel of absolute authenticity. As I re-read them, at age 82, having had lots more experience with lots more people of different ages, than Styron had time to have had when he wrote this novel, his descriptions were believable to me.
His writing was compared to Faulkner’s. I don’t know about that. To me, the tenderness and understanding of human fears and weaknesses he describes made me think of Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night . After grabbing me and telling me a long story about death and loss and love and betrayal, Styron ends his novel with a penultimate section, forty-nine pages without a paragraph break, in which he transcribes the thoughts in young Peyton’s head. Unlike Dostoevsky, Styron does not stand aside and write about what Peyton is thinking. Peyton herself lets you into her head and allows you to think with her, feel with her, remember with her.
Grok and Mind Meld
A.E. Heinlen invented the term grok in his novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, a science fiction fantasy based on a Martian who visits Earth. The visitor has the ability to relate to another person by communicating between his own and his or her minds. The process is called groking. It obviously enables a degree of intimacy otherwise impossible to achieve. As I read Crime and Punishment, I realized that Dostoevsky was enabling me to relate to Roskolnikov’s mind,, rather than merely with his actions and statements. It reminded me of Heinlen’s groking.
Styron, on the other hand, took me a step closer than Heinlen. Throughout his novel, and especially in the 49-page internal monologue, he enabled Peyton and I to communicate through a mind meld, a Vulcan ability introduced to Earthlings by Spock, an officer in the Starship Enterprise, commanded by Captain Kirk.
I don’t intend to escape from reality permanently but I have decided to temper my dabbling in reality by vicariously experiencing other people’s lives through the pages of well-written, or just moderately well-written (I’m not very discriminating when it comes to fiction) novels.
May 1, 2013 § Leave a comment
Last year, in October, I posted some pessimistic comments about the drafting of Dodd-Frank regulations. See The Details Devils. Those regulations involve the jurisdiction of four different federal agencies. They are necessary to implement Dodd-Frank’s purpose: To limit the ability of Wall Street banks to wreak havoc on the economy by creating and marketing risky and deceptively complicated securities. I cited three articles from the New York Times and Bloomberg News describing the bitter multi-agency struggles concerning the effort to separate investment banking from commercial banking, generally known as the Volker Rule.
Since then I have expressed my gloomy opinion that corporate capitalism seems to have overpowered the ability of our government to rein in its most destructive inclinations. See Capitalism and Democracy – Symbiotic Conflict.
Today’s New York Times has a story about the struggle between government regulatory agencies and Wall Street banks concerning proposed Dodd-Frank regulations. See story.
Lastweek I read a lengthy article in The Nation by Gary Rivlin, “How Wall Street De-Fanged Dodd-Frank“. The author, a talented reporter, has described, in detail, how armies of lobbyists and lawyers, financed with unlimited money from Wall Street banks and a consortium of corporate organizations and trade associations, have overwhelmed both the officials charged with drafting and seeking adoption of Dodd-Frank regulations, and the members of congressional committees having oversight of those subjects.
The characters in this melodrama are interesting. One member of the corporate wrecking team is Eugene Scalia, son of Supreme Court Justice Humpty-Dumpty Scalia. His role is to file multiple law suits designed to embroil the regulatory drafting process in litigation for years and thereby thwart Congress’s effort to protect the American economy from a repetition of the 2008 financial debacle. According to Rivlin’s article, he is succeeding swimmingly.
One of the associations funding and sponsoring the lobbyist members of the wrecking crew is our own Kenneth M Bentsen, former member of Congress and now head of the Securities Industry and Financial Marketing Association, nephew of Lloyd Bentsen. We all remember Lloyd. He’s the guy who waged a successful smear campaign against Senator Ralph Yarborough in 1970, later made an unsuccessful run for the presidency, then was rewarded by the Democratic Party with a nomination for Vice President and running mate with Walter Mondale; then, when that didn’t work out, was again rewarded by President Clinton, who appointed him Secretary of the Treasury. Oh yeah, we remember him. Looks like his nephew is carrying on the family tradition.
Why is it, that every time some absolutely putrid, disgraceful process takes place in Washington D.C., some Texas yahoo shows up in the middle of it? When Ken Bentsen was a congressman, I thought he was a new generation of Bentsens; that maybe he was going to renounce the dark side. Guess the money was just too good to pass up.
I won’t try to summarize Gary Rivilin’s article. It is long but I urge you to read it. If, as I have written, there is a war going on between democracy and capitalism, Wall Street banks possess the nuclear bombs. They have already demonstrated that they are irresponsible and reckless custodians of those weapons. We are still living with the resulting economic ruin. Dodd-Frank represents an effort to disarm them. So far, the prospects don’t look promising.