Showing posts with label Primaries. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Primaries. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Be-twitched Bothered Bewildered

I’m still recoiling from Meet the Press last Sunday, in particular Chuck Todd’s brief interview with Ted Cruz.  If Donald Trump is a symptom of a malignancy in American politics, Cruz is part of the disease itself. Here’s a brief except from that interview:

I want you to react to something here that President Obama said at a fundraiser, responding to the tone of Donald Trump rallies. Here it is, sir.
And what's been happening in our politics lately is not an accident. For years, we've been told we should be angry about America and that the economy's a disaster. And that we're weak. And that compromise is weakness. And that you can ignore science and you could ignore facts and say whatever you want about the president. And feed suspicion about immigrants and Muslims and poor people and people who aren't like us.
That's the president essentially saying, "This has been happening for years," before most of his term.
You know, Chuck, Barack Obama's a world class demagogue. That language there is designed to divide us. No, Mr. President, we're not angry at that. We're angry at politicians in Washington, including you, who ignore the men and women who elected you. Who have been presiding over our jobs going overseas for seven years?
Who have been cutting deals that are enriching the rich and powerful, the special interests and the big corporations, while working men and women are seeing their wages stagnating?  And he talks about immigrants and Muslims. Mr. President, we're mad at a president who wants to bring in Syrian refugees who may be infiltrated by ISIS. And you're unwilling to be commander in chief and keep us safe. So don't engage in attacking the people, like the president did.

Wow, it takes a demagogue to call someone a demagogue.  Psittacisms for the masses, from both Cruz and Trump.

This brought Mr. Cruz into power as a leading Tea Party advocate. His obstructionist voice has been a leading one during his Senate occupancy, effectively shutting down any hope of compromise.   No wonder the President had to resort to his much criticized use of Executive Orders, although his use of such orders has averaged less than George Bush’s.
And, yet, there is the whiff of truth in some of what he says, no, not about Obama being the cause, but about a long-building anger, much longer than Mr. Cruz et al would like it to be known.  Bernie Sanders taps into similar angst.  At the heart of that fury is the American socio-economic landscape which has changed over the years, but you could count them in decades.  The last seven years were more of the same for the disenfranchised middle class, watching their earning power and employability decline in relation to better educated, higher income families. Consequently, wage inequality has grown, but this has been going on for thirty five years, well documented by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI)
Unfortunately, there is no easy panacea for this other than for our country to come to grips with the reality of today’s world.  The industrial revolution has morphed into a cyber revolution, where geographic borders do not exist.  Workers are being displaced by technology, robotics.  It is not a question of bringing manufacturing jobs home any more; it’s the challenge of educating workers in new skills.  Any politician who holds out the trade war card is delusional, playing a simplistic card to get elected.  We’re a country after a quick fix and it sounds good, make “tough” deals with China, tax their goods sky high.  Wait until the quick fixers see the new prices at Walmart.  None of them will like that either (unless a President Trump makes Walmart reduce their prices! :-)

Many of the recommendations suggested by the EPI for turning the tide of income inequality were also advocated by the Obama administration but have been cut off at the knees by the Party of No, one for example enacting public investments in infrastructure to create jobs.  And there are others.

But nothing rings truer for the disenfranchised than the Trumperian throwaway that in 15 minutes he’d solve the trade deficit.  Our trade agreements have evolved over years of negotiations and it’s not that simple Donald (or Ted).  Admittedly the currency manipulations on the part of governments all over the world throw aspects of trade agreements under the bus, each region fighting for a larger piece of a pie that is growing only oh-so-very-slowly.  We have the “advantage” of having (at least seemingly) the currency of last resort, and this is yet another factor in the strong dollar, but that further contributes to making foreign goods cheaper and our exports more expensive.  It is the inverse of the early 1980’s when the dollar was cheap and interest rates were double digits, inflationary fears running amuck.  Today there is little inflation with whiffs of deflation.

This is all in the wake of the most dangerous economic crisis we have faced since the Great Depression.  In the absence of Congress being able to agree upon fiscal policy the temporary fix was radical monetary policy engineered by the Federal Reserve.  Someone had to act.  But the Fed now is blamed by the Party of No.

Nonetheless we are left with debt; it could have been less with sounder fiscal policy, but that was not to be.  Where would Ted Cruz’s flat tax plan and tying the dollar to the Gold Standard leave us?  And the Trump solution?  “Trust me, I make good deals.”  Whatever that means.

For anyone who has read thus far, I leave the reader with an “out-of-the-box” review on the subject (hat tip to my son, Chris).  It is the most cynical analysis I’ve ever read, authored by “Cognitive Dissonance,” Down the Trump Rabbit Hole - Manufacturing Consent. 

It attempts to explain Trump in light of the “system” which “Cognitive Dissonance” equates to “The Empire,” its purpose to always move forward, to consume. Everyone within the empire serves the Empire, including its individual and corporate ‘citizens’. This especially holds true for its upper level civil ‘servants’, political appointees, elected office holders, state and federal judges, the military at all levels including ‘civilian police officers, the oligarchs and elites. And most importantly, the President of the United States. All are beholden to the Empire and constitute the court of the Empire. While the president may be considered the Chief Executive Officer, the president works for the Empire and is controlled by the Empire’s court. The power of the president flows up from the Empire’s court, not down from the president

So how does this relate to The Donald?  When your credibility is suddenly called into question and people begin to seek alternative ‘authorities’, give the people what they want…though not exactly what they want, just what you have conditioned them to believe they want. Or as is the case with our current situation, since anyone who is presently an authority is not to be trusted, give people the antithesis of the existing authority structure.  The Donald.

“Cognitive Dissonance” goes on to argue that as Clinton is a “child of the court,” she cannot deliver what the Empire’s subjects perceive to be needed for the Empire’s very survival.  Only the anti-establishment holds that power but expect Trump to concoct some mighty reforms which will bleed and permanently weaken the middle class even further. You didn’t expect the elite and court to actually pay for the reforms…did you?

I would like to believe that this cynicism is merely an exaggeration of the truth, that we’re better than that, and reasonable people can come to long term solutions.   Yes, more and more time will be needed as the can is kicked further down the road.  To deal with the national debt we first have to work towards a balanced budget.  A tall order in today’s world, one that will exact pain, particularly for the Plutocracy, but in the end for us all.  We’ve lived long enough by borrowing against the future.  Do we have the fortitude, the patience, and above all the willingness to make compromises? 

If not, “Cognitive Dissonance” might be right on the mark.

On the other hand, “Stonekettle” has hit it out of the ballpark once again.  I’ve mentioned this blog before.  Its views are compelling, brutally honest, no holding back for Jim Wright, the blog's author.  His take on the topic was published in two parts, the latest being his The Latter Days of a Better Nation, Part II.
Far too many Americans still think of Trump’s campaign as a joke and they keep waiting for the laugh ... but somehow the punch line never comes.

It never comes because, you see, the joke is on us. All of us, conservatives and liberals, republicans and democrats and the independents.

In effect, to understand Trumpism, look in a mirror.  We’ve given rise to him.  As Wright concludes, if you want a better nation, be better citizens.

I thought I was done with this.  In the process of posting this entry President Obama was delivering an eloquent speech, nominating Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.  Mitch McConnell now responding in the background, with “let the people decide.”  We did in 2012.  So, the beat goes on….

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The More things Change

The more they stay the same.  Well, not exactly.

I’ve been winnowing my old files.  The stuff I come across sometimes amazes me, things I wrote that I don’t remember or don’t remember saving or why.  Two recent discoveries remind me that over the decades I have witnessed an amazing span of history, technological developments, a world that has evolved with increasing complexity and interconnectiveness.  Yet, still, some of the old political issues are not old at all.  They have merely festered and changed their spots.

I found copies of two letters I wrote in my salad days, the first to the New York Times commenting on their editorial on Barry Goldwater’s nomination, a man who, in retrospect, seems tame by today’s conservative / tea party crowd. However, at the time of his presidential candidacy in 1964, he had not ruled out the use of tactical nuclear weaponry against our Cold War nemesis, the Soviet Union, and anyplace where communism was being supported.  Johnson beat him badly in 1964.  Interestingly Goldwater moderated in his later years as a statesman, and in my mind redeemed himself, although always a staunch conservative in the classic intellectual sense, not the bible-thumping variety of today.

In any case, at the height of Goldwater’s rise to the nomination in 1964, the twenty one year old me wrote the following to the New York Times:

                                                                July 19, 1964

The Editor
New York Times
New York, New York

To the Editor:

“Disaster at San Francisco,” indeed, may yet become a disaster for America.  Your firm editorial stand against Senator Barry Goldwater must be continued to help defeat this dangerous radical, so that we may prove to ourselves and to the rest of the world that “it can’t happen here.”
As Hitler made use of Germany’s post-World War One frustrations, Senator Goldwater is a political demagogue who similarly, but more subtly, intends to capitalize on the frustrations of many Americans, frustrations that have arisen in the ashes of domestic racial problems and the tensions of the Cold War.  Goldwater tells us, as Hitler told Germany, that we are the strongest country in the world and we should stand up to the opposition (who he vaguely refers to as “the Commies”).  This simple, but realistically absurd suggestion, appeals to those who are unable to bear the responsibility of living in these modern times.  Unfortunately, there are still many “good citizens” of America who believe that if we act as if it is still the “good old days,” we will recreate those days.
If we are to preserve democracy in our country and continue to encourage democracy abroad, we must condemn political extremists who present oversimplified, irresponsible, and inherently contradictory solutions to complex issues, solutions which would isolate us from our friends abroad and which, conceivably, could destroy the world as we know it.

Its contents mention some of the same issues Americans face today, particularly as espoused by Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.  The latter of course bills himself as a true conservative, but he is the very kind of conservative who I think Goldwater himself would have condemned.  In fact where is Barry Goldwater when we need him : -)?  Here is something Goldwater said to John Dean in 1994: “Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they're sure trying to do so, it's going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can't and won't compromise. I know, I've tried to deal with them.”  How profound is that, Mr. Rubio, Mr. Cruz?

And my files coughed up a letter I wrote three years later to Senator J. William Fulbright during the height of the Vietnam War.  Again, different times, different war, but still relevant in many ways:

                                                                                August 6, 1967

Senator J. William Fulbright
Chairman, Senate Foreign Relations Committee
United States Senate
Washington D.C.

Dear Senator Fulbright:

I am just finishing your book THE ARROGANCE OF POWER and I felt obligated to immediately express my support of your thesis.
The Vietnam situation is truly tragic.  The noble ideals of our great country are belied by our actions.  How can we expect the world community to look to America for leadership while we drop millions of tons of bombs on a small country of mostly peasants, support dictatorships, even as we seem incapable of resolving many of our own domestic problems?
                While I do not feel that we can just abandon our Asian commitments, we need to discard our military’s “search and destroy” philosophy in favor of seeking a solution over a conference table – which may demand compromise, but ones also compatible with democracy.
                In addition, I believe that the United States has more to lose by endeavoring to become the world’s policeman.  An Asian conflict should be resolved, in the most part, by the Asians and/or the United Nations, with the encouragement of the world’s great powers.  Our military involvement in the affairs of other nations only tends to weaken the fabric of the U.N. and secures the animosity of other nations toward us.
                I encourage continuing your efforts to reestablish the system of checks and balances provided for in the Constitution so a more realistic foreign policy can be devised and implemented.
                With great admiration of the courageous and sensible stand which you have taken, I am,
                                Sincerely yours,

So, there you have it: the “mini- me” of some five decades ago writing about some of the same issues of today. 

And now the present brings us into a political environment ripe for extremism, as evidenced by the unexpectedly strong primary showings of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, polar opposites but in many ways playing to the same base, the disenfranchised. In early December I wrote a piece It Can’t Happen Here? (the very words I wrote to the NYT fifty two years earlier) suggesting that Trump was merely a Trojan horse for Ted Cruz.  Still might be (or for Rubio), but now two plus months later Trump is not only still in the Republican race, he’s in command of it, and in fact could be much closer to becoming the Republican nominee after today’s primaries. 

And who knows where Hillary might be if her email morass deepens, but assuming she is the nominee, what if some of Sanders’ supporters, particularly the disenfranchised young, join up with the Trump crowd (who Trump now likes to celebrate as being the short, the tall, the skinny, the fat, the rich. the poor, the highly educated and the poorly educated – making a particular point that he LOVES the poorly educated). Those two groups could become a potent base.

Trying to connect all the dots in my mind – how can a phenomena such as a Trump come into being?  An epiphany: I remembered my long-ago reading of Eric Hoffer’s classic The True Believer: Thoughts On The Nature Of Mass Movements.  For a more detailed recollection, I went to Wikipedia’s description.  Hoffer is eerily on the mark.  It could serve as a textbook explanation of Trump’s appeal, other than the merger of “reality TV” and the presidential primaries. From Wikipedia…..

Hoffer states that mass movements begin with a widespread "desire for change" from discontented people who place their locus of control outside their power and who also have no confidence in existing culture or traditions. Feeling their lives are "irredeemably spoiled" and believing there is no hope for advancement or satisfaction as an individual, true believers seek "self-renunciation." Thus, such people are ripe to participate in a movement that offers the option of subsuming their individual lives in a larger collective. Leaders are vital in the growth of a mass movement, as outlined below, but for the leader to find any success, the seeds of the mass movement must already exist in people's hearts.

While mass movements are usually some blend of nationalist, political and religious ideas, Hoffer argues there are two important commonalities: "All mass movements are competitive" and perceive the supply of converts as zero-sum; and "all mass movements are interchangeable." As examples of the interchangeable nature of mass movements, Hoffer cites how almost 2000 years ago Saul, a fanatical opponent of Christianity, became Paul, a fanatical apologist and promoter of Christianity. Another example occurred in Germany during the 1920s and the 1930s, when Communists and Fascists were ostensibly bitter enemies but in fact competed for the same type of angry, marginalized people; Nazis Adolf Hitler and Ernst Röhm, and Communist Karl Radek, all boasted of their prowess in converting their rivals

It is unlike any presidential election cycle I’ve ever known, even the Goldwater era which from this point in the future looks placid, even sane.   The macho trash talking of the Republican “debates” leaves me bewildered, but that testosterone also extends into policy – make America “great again” by building up the military (we should be building our infrastructure instead).  A highly recommended read on the topic is written by an ex-military man himself, Jim Wright: The Latter Days of a Better Nation

An afterthought, the relevancy of art as expressed in Your Beliefs by Jani Leinonen -- displayed at the recent Palm Beach Jewelry, Art & Antique Show.

                                           Your beliefs become your thoughts,
                                           Your thoughts become your words,
                                           Your words become your actions,
                                           Your actions become your habits,
                                           Your habits become your values,
                                           Your values become your destiny.
                                                             ― Mahatma Gandhi

Monday, February 15, 2016

American Rust to American Politics and Art for the One Percent

When I heard the praise heaped upon Philipp Meyer’s The Son which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, I was curious about his first published novel, American Rust.  It is a work of merit and promise, and a good read, close to a dystopian piece of fiction, the inverse of the American Dream, depicting the demise of the middle class and the seismic changes to the American landscape.  It is also a Bildungsroman, the protagonist, Isaac English, having to embark on an odyssey to escape the “American rust” of the Pittsburgh valley and its failed steel industry and his father as well, having to endure beatings, starvation and exhaustion during his journey, but ultimately returning home to save his friend Poe, and to find salvation.

This is a well-crafted character driven novel with each carrying a piece of the story, frequently that piece unknown to the others, at least in its entirety, and leaving the reader the omniscient observer.  Meyer skillfully maintains the suspense, making the book a page turner, to me one of the marks of a good writer.

The other characters are intertwined with the 19 year old Isaac English who was expected to go to any top college of his choice as he excelled in high school, as did his older sister, Lee, who went on to Yale on scholarship, and married wealthy right out of school.  Isaac stayed behind in the prison of his environment, to care for his father Henry who is in a wheelchair and also to be with his only friend, Billy Poe, two years older than Isaac, a star football player in high school who was expected to get an athletic scholarship to college, but ended up hanging around the dilapidated mill town mainly out of loyalty to his mother who is divorced, and living in a trailer.  There is the chief of police, Bud Harris, who loves Billy’s mother and has moved mountains to keep Billy on the straight and narrow.  And to further add complexity to the plot, there is the residual love affair between Billy and Isaac’s sister, the now married Lee, who returns to check on her father and finds her brother leaving.

I’ll not go into more details of the plot which brings all of this together but there are acts of sacrifice and love that ultimately set Isaac and Billy free.  Lurking in the background at all times though, are the remnants of the steel towns, the low-paying jobs left behind for those who have stayed and can find them, a future without a real future and violence.  The same feelings were invoked when I read about the empty mill towns of Richard Russo and the trailer parks of Russell Banks.  But Meyer’s writing is his own, and clever as he builds his novel chapter by chapter, from those different viewpoints, converging at the end. There is a little bit of modern day Kerouac here and even Salinger (such as the way Isaac in stream of consciousness refers to himself in the third person as “the kid”).

What came to mind over and over again is this election year.  Here we have two revolutionary yet entirely polarized players, the “democratic-socialist,” Bernie Sanders, and the “alpha male, say-anything-you-want” Donald Trump.  Each in their own way has forged a strong connection with the disenfranchised white middle class, or the young. What used to be a mainstream American Dream now exists mostly for the deliriously wealthy.  The phenomena of today’s Republican and Democratic primaries is the “do-you-hear-the-people-sing” voice of those who have been left holding the bag as we’ve morphed from a manufacturing economy to a techno-service based one. 

In this regard, Philipp Meyer’s American Rust speaks like John Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy, or John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.  The topography of the problem is laid down in similar social commentary. Lee is driving her father for a medical appointment and Meyer observes: Farther along she couldn’t help noticing the old coal chute stretching the length of the hillside, passing high over the road on its steel supports, the sky visible through its rusted floor; the iron suspension bridge crossing the river. It was sealed at both ends, its entire structure similarly penetrated and pocked by rust. Then it seemed there was a rash of abandoned structures, an enormous steel-sided factory painted powder blue, its smokestacks stained with the ubiquitous red-brown streaks, its gate chained shut for how many years, it had never been open in her lifetime. In the end it was rust. That was what defined this place..

Isaac in his travels on foot is approaching a western PA town: From a distance it looked peaceful. Up close it looked abandoned-most of the buildings in complete disrepair, vandalism and neglect. He passed through the downtown, there were a few cars parked, but mostly it was empty buildings, old signs on old storefronts, ancient For Lease signs in most of the windows. The only hints of life came from the coke plant by the river, long corrugated buildings, a tall ventstack burning off wastegas, occasional billows of steam from the coke quenching. A scooploader big enough to pick up a semitrailer was taking coal from a barge and dumping it onto a conveyor toward the main plant. The train tracks were jammed with open railcars full of dusty black coke but other than Isaac, there was not another actual person in sight.

The consequences are destroyed lives. Harris describes it as “The Great Migration” as Steinbeck might have defined it himself: Passing through the town, past the old police station and the new one, he'd seen the Fall, the shuttering of the mills, and the Great Migration that followed. Migration to nowhere-thousands of people moved to Texas, tens of thousands, probably, hoping for jobs on oil rigs, but there weren't many of those jobs to be had. So those people had ended up worse off than they started, broke and jobless in a place they didn't know anyone. The rest had just disappeared. And you would never know it. He'd watched guys go from making thirty dollars an hour to four-fifteen, a big steelworker bagging his groceries, stone-faced, there was no easy way for anyone to deal with it.

Migration jobs like the ones offered to Billy Poe involve constant traveling to dispose of the flotsam of shutting down our manufacturing facilities and its environmental impact: There was an opening at a company that did the plastic seals for landfills. Traveling all over the country. At new landfills they would lay down the plastic liners in preparation for garbage to be dumped there, to prevent leakage into nearby streams and such. At the old landfills they would seal them up, it was like a giant ziplock, a heavy layer of plastic overtop the garbage and then they blew them up with air to test them, just before they dumped the soil on top you could run across the acres of plastic, bouncing, it was like running on the moon…it was fourteen dollars an hour to start. But it was not really running on the moon. It was working with other people's trash. Technicians, they called themselves, but it was not really that. It was laying plastic overtop of trash heaps, it was hanging around city dumps. Your country is supposed to do better….[And then there was] dismantling work, taking apart mills and old factories, they had taken down old steelmills all over the country, locally and nationally. But…there was so much traveling, it was living out of a suitcase the entire year….The work was all in the Midwest now, taking down the auto plants in Michigan and Indiana. And one day even that work would end, and there would be no record, nothing left standing, to show that any-thing had ever been built in America. It was going to cause big problems, he didn't know how but he felt it. You could not have a country, not this big, that didn't make things for itself. There would be ramifications eventually.

Lee’s teacher in high school had come to the town decades before when the steel mills were thriving.  He moved to the Valley to bring socialism to the mills, he'd been a steelworker for ten years, lost his job and become a teacher. Graduated from Cornell and became a steelworker. There were lots of us, he'd told her. Reds working right alongside the good old boys. But there had never been any revolution, not anything close, a hundred and fifty thousand people lost their jobs but they had all gone quietly. It was obvious there were people responsible, there were living breathing men who'd made those decisions to put the entire Valley out of work, they had vacation homes in Aspen, they sent their kids to Yale, their portfolios went up when the mills shut down. But, aside from a few ministers who'd famously snuck into a white-glove church and thrown skunk oil on the wealthy pastor, no one lifted a hand in protest. There was something particularly American about it-blaming yourself for bad luck-that resistance to seeing your life as affected by social forces, a tendency to attribute larger problems to individual behavior. The ugly reverse of the American Dream. In France, she thought, they would have shut down the country. They would have stopped the mills from closing. But of course you couldn't say that in public…

Which brings us to the present, the “ugly reverse of the American Dream…you weren't supposed to get laid off if you were good at your job” and the consequences, a barbell society, lots of people at the one extreme, a select few at the other, and the vanishing middle class in between.  Indeed, there are “ramifications” reflected in the contentious presidential debates, the right moving further to the right and the left moving further to the left, not exactly what our founding fathers envisioned.

And speaking of how the other half of the upper 1% live, this past week featured the annual Palm Beach Jewelry, Art & Antique Show which we like to visit but with a look-but-do-not-touch mind-set.  Actually, it’s with an “unable-to-touch” approach as some of the works of art there are priced at $250k plus although there are some nifty pieces for “only” $10k. It is like an eclectic museum and it appeals to my idiosyncratic taste in “art.”

We attended it on “President’s Day” weekend.  Here is yet another change in American Life. We used to celebrate Washington’s Birthday on February 22, but that fell on unpredictable days of the week and there was Lincoln’s February 12 birthday to consider, so it became a compromised holiday, conveniently on a Monday for the benefit of blockbuster “Presidential” mattress and automobile sales.  Sorry, General Washington.

Nonetheless, at the show I was drawn to Mark Daly’s Broad Street Commute, President’s Day, oil on linen, painted in the classic impressionist style, one I’m particularly fond of and of the subject as well.  Merely a cool $14.5K. 

I’m a sucker for sea scenes, especially of the old classic sailing ships and if I had “another” $168k would be snapping up Montague Dawson’s Blue Pacific, The Titania.

Given the solipsism of today’s world, I was intrigued by Susan P. Cochran sculpture Narcissistic Ant.  Not sure that I have an appropriate place in the house to display it though : - )

Finally, after walking the exhibit, I thought a good cup of coffee might be tasty, but I was told to keep my coffee beans to myself when approaching the polished American Duplex Fresh Ground Coffee Maker on display – unless I had $14k.

Indeed, an interesting display of objects of art, but not to be outdone by the sunset a few days ago taken from our own backyard.  American rust, American dreams, dysfunctional government, all can take a back seat to this….