Monday, October 31, 2016

Team Craven

(This post will be appearing shortly at, edited by Benj Demott.)

In a year of assholes, it appears that the formidable task of being crowned Asshole of the Year has now been achieved by James Comey.  Usually the question is, is this Team Stupid or Team Evil? And the answer with Republicans is often, both.  In view of the affirmations from all sides that he is a straight up guy, I'm opting for the usual combination, but with emphasis on Team Stupid.  And in his case, we might insert Team Craven as well.

It's only been two days, so not a lot is known.  Thanks to the path-breaking post-election story-telling of Teddy White, who answered the publisher's question of will anyone care once the result is known, we can be assured we will in fact know intimate details, probably sooner rather than later.  But the current vacuum cries out for speculation...

Comey is a Republican and that is his reference group. So even as he tries to be the Boy Scout he is reputed to consciously aspire to be, when they criticize him, no matter how cravenly stupid and partisan and evil they may be, he cowers.  He doesn't want to endure yet another bout of abuse from them.

But why doesn't he understand that failing to follow the dictates of his superiors and of precedent and of guidelines will open him up to something worse than abuse — he loses his reputation and respect.  Maybe he doesn't see himself as a Boy Scout; maybe he sees himself as a Boy Scout Troop Leader — Mr. Independent Judgement and Individual Responsibility.  Maybe he thinks that will look heroic.  Guess again.

Instead, what it looks like to me, and I'll speculate it will look like to history, is that he has been ground down by the Republican Right Wing, a despicably unpatriotic bunch, and, like so many of Republicans one might have hoped would be stand-up guys and gals, he has not been able to withstand Hurricane Trump.  Team Stupid, Team Craven.

Or maybe there is something more nefarious going on.  Jason Chaffetz might be in his ear. They might be in cahoots, or something that hasn't even been imagined, maybe Chaffetz has something on him.  You can believe anything about these guys, really.  Maybe he was spotted in the Minneapolis airport men's room taking a wide stance.

In any case, from the July press conference that was unprecedented and immoderate, to this ambush in October with all innuendo and no apparent substance whatsoever, he has fully achieved his sad fate as Asshole of the Year.

Didn't any of these guys read Profiles in Courage in high school?

Budd Shenkin

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Understanding Trumpers

We are often the cause of our own resentments.

I know I am. Perhaps there are things I want to do but something holds me back. My own personality; my own misperceptions; my own reluctances; messages from my parents, parts of them that live on in me whether I like it or not. My own laziness. My own comfort in the familiar. My own confusion over what I can change and what I can't. My fears.

That's actually what I see when I see a red stain over the middle of the country, broader in the middle and the lower right of the picture, tapering in the less populous mid-continent. Or when I hear about Arlie Hochshield's five years in Louisiana with the left-out whites who think others are being taken care of, but not them. Or about others who lurk about the South and talk to Trump sign-displayers who still talk about the Communist New York Times. I see Reagan voters, I see Bush voters, I see McCain and Romney and now Trumpers who inexplicably vote for lower taxes on others than themselves. I see What's The Matter With Kansas voters. They resent what they have supported and still support and cause to be perpetuated and I guess can't help themselves from doing it to themselves.

Years ago I took a year and lived in Sweden, doing research on medical care, and learning Swedish so I could travel comfortably throughout the entire Swedish Empire, as I joked at the time. If you don't learn the language of the country you are in, it's hard to really be in the country you are in, and it's good to use your brain even if it's hard going. But I was surprised to see how easy Swedish is for English speakers, despite the weird sing-song that I like so much. Unlike Asian and African and Bushmen languages, there are so many cognates and the grammar is straightforward for us. We hear that English is half Romance and half Germanic, with other words thrown in from somewhere else, like typhoon, and assassin. But the Germanic side of English isn't actually German, it's Scandinavian, from the Vikings in the ninth and tenth century – by the way, for a great read, read The Long Ships by Frans Bengtssen (New York Review Books Classic, recommended by my local bookseller Diesel Books, who said Michael Chabon loved it, and I see why, after reading it). So Swedish has an eerie familiarity for an English speaker.

I also read about 10 books on Sweden, the first being a basic history of Sweden. What I didn't know was that in the early days of the 20th century Sweden was known as “fattig Sverige,” or “poor Sweden.” (“Sverige” is Swedish for Sweden, and is pronounced “Sveria.”) That's why we have so may Scandinavians in the upper Midwest; just as the Irish fled the famine (and English oppression), the Swedes and Norwegians fled poverty that had no obvious end in sight. The ostensible reason I had gone to Sweden was to see how the Third Way (Marquis Childs' term) worked. At the time that the imagination of most of the world turned to Communism, the Swedish Social Democratic party, the political arm of the Landsorganisation (the LO, pronounced “landsorganisa-shoon”), had taken the country by the bootstraps and booted up. They enforced equality, and education. As time went by, they saw that they were a small country, a cold country, a homogeneous country, a country with iron and lumber up north, and fish, and about 6 million people when I was there, and an out of the way country that no one had to cross to get to somewhere else. So if they were going to make something of themselves, they would have to do it by themselves, and they would have to think it through and figure out what to inject to the world and how to do it.

So they did. They saw they had to marshal their resources as they found them, and use their brains and their self-discipline and their capacity for unity as enforced by a dominant party. They had to target their shots and specialize in what the world needed. To tell you the truth, I forget now exactly what they found. Electrolux, that I remember. Forest products. Steel. From Wikipedia: “motor vehicles, telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, industrial machines, precision equipment, chemical goods, home goods and appliances, forestry, iron, and steel.”

But here's the point I'm trying to make. They saw the need for self-discipline, education, pulling together, and thinking things out. When they found what they thought was their best shot, they went for it. And that effort had to be extensive and people-centered. So they invested in training – they paid for people to go to school. And they invested in moving people around – they paid people to move, paid for new housing, and let them spend supported time getting situated and learning their new skills in these industries. Paid them not to work for a while.

So, guess what? It worked. Fattig Sverige became fattig no more. It became a country that worked because they tried to make it work, they dared, and they did it through a state that people complained about, but that they supported and paid lots of taxes to, and that was worthy of trust. Today (well, in 2013), from The Local, a Stockholm publication: Sweden has come in second place in a ranking of citizen well-being on the OECD's Better Life Index, beating its Scandinavian neighbours but still outgunned on the happiness scale by the Australians.”

The United States has a long and glorious history. We were poor, too. The colonists didn't have much. Look at what they wore in the Civil War – God, they had nothing! They had a couple of shirts and pairs of pants, maybe. And yet the country came to prosper, led along a different path than Sweden, rich in natural resources and a constantly enriched population of ambitious immigrants who understood the need to learn a new language, get educated, and work hard. World affairs helped as Europe despoiled its own lands and industries and we had lots of fields to ourselves. But when they regrew, we didn't see exactly how we could target our shots forward. Almost inadvertently, it seems, we enlarged our capacity by putting our women to work, and we are now, certainly belatedly, starting to find strength in our formerly excluded populations, our “minorities.” So progress is being made.

But we are not biting the bullet the way the Swedes did. Globalization and automation are here to stay, and they should be. Imagine the backbreaking work of farming, or mining, or working on the line. As Galbraith observed in his autobiography, when he worked in the agricultural fields of Ontario, he quickly found the attraction of “inside work,” on his road to economics stardom. Who would want to go back to the past of drudgery? Imagine if the fields could plow themselves, wouldn't that be great? Yes, of course it would be, and it is, but the problem is, who owns the means of production, who reaps the reward? Therein lies the rub. How does one distribute the benefit?

You have to find a way that people who are displaced get the benefit of the advancing technology. That was the genius of Sweden. They did it in a social democratic way. They took those displaced workers and made of them something else, not usually economists, but technicians in other fields that needed skilled workers. They paid for them, and the people put in the work. That is precisely what the United States has not done.

We have instead followed a Conservative line. We have kept our money from the state instead of investing in our people through the state. We have neglected not only transportation infrastructure, but people infrastructure. We have said the government is the enemy. We – and I mean not me, not my part of the country, but rather that red swatch of states from South and Southwest up through the Midwest and Upper Midwest, and don't forget coal country in West Virginia and Kentucky – have been distrustful of government and instead voted for conservatives for 40 years at least. The Christian Coalition has been successful. The governing group is not really a majority of the country, actually, it's the residue of the constitutional compromise that ensconced the Senate in the hands of the small states, that didn't foresee the importance of cities and coastal states. My America would vote for more training, for more support for the displaced, for rifling our economic shots, at least I think we would. But the less than 1 million Wyomingites have two senators and disproportional power, and so do the other red states. The South is still afraid that the money would go to those more darkly hued than themselves. The Democratic Party has been unable to muster the dominance the LO forged in Sweden, the country has been unable to think of itself as homogeneous in spirit, and those traditional populations in the South and the Southwest and the Midwest and the Upper Midwest and coal country have voted for lower taxes on others that they could have used to retrain and relocate themselves. Even Democratic Presidents have had to minimize their objectives. The Republicans have won, and whoopdedoo, where are you now, my fellow Americans?

My wife says, yes, it's a shame where they are economically, but what are they doing for themselves behind their Trump front yard signs? Well, I answer, what can they do? They don't have the schools and the training programs and the relocation funds and help available to them. Not everyone can do it for themselves, get themselves together and move to California or wherever and pull themselves up all by themselves. Most people are just average, and a fair percentage, I guess 49%, are below average. I remember them from high school, giggling or hacking off over on the side of the classroom. What were they ever going to make of themselves, they who couldn't learn French very well or chemistry or very much at all? They needed help then, and they need help now, and they could get it if they were smart enough to know they weren't smart and that they needed help.

Independence is great, I like it myself, but sometimes it gets in the way. Sometimes you have to work with others and trust, and sometimes you have to be smart enough to see that the business school people, graduates of Wharton, are just going to look after themselves. So you have to elect people to go out and make sure you get taken care of, and then be willing to do your part. You have to hang together and work together.

And sometimes you find that you can't. You get deluded and you get seduced, your memories of your parents and how they voted get in the way, and for 40 years or more you vote for those who lie and cheat and steal and do business the way the business schools taught them. But in the end, with all your resentments at your lot in life, you have to look at yourself straight and understand that, in the end, you did it to yourself. And then you have to take yourself by the bootstraps, boot up, and do for your children what your forefathers did for you, and start your journey with a single step, and just change how you vote, and do what you can do differently, if what you have been doing hasn't been working for you. You have to turn the red stain blue, and do it by the roots. The grass will always grow if you let it.

Budd Shenkin

Friday, October 7, 2016

Maybe I'm Not A Liberal II

I get my politics from my parents.  They we Democrats, Jewish Democrats, liberal Democrats.  I’ve always thought I was basically a liberal Democrat also.  I still think I am.

But maybe I’m not.  Not that labels are important, but they do describe something.  A general world view, maybe.  How you vote, yes, that’s probably right, at least for party.  But they say that nowadays labels are kind of out of date.  And since I’m one of the highly educated, maybe my nuances make labels even harder.  But being on the left is sort of a birthright to me.  Concern for others, that’s part of what it connotes for me, it’s a basic morality that was handed down.

So, given that, I am totally outraged at the Left, the way someone who has been betrayed feels.  All the lefties who want to restrict free speech, especially on campus.  Can you believe it?  These people are total jerks — or, better to say that their position they hold on this issue is mistaken.  Or, they’re jerks.  Dunno.

And the anti-Semitism!  God, how can you stand that?  It used to the the Right, now it’s the Left.  Maybe I feel the way liberal Republicans, or even moderates talk about that party — I didn’t leave it, they left me.  And the Republican party has indeed been highjacked - not that I could ever be a Republican.  I don’t like smug country club members.  They remind me of my middle school nemesis, Dicky Richards, with red faced and red haired daddy picking him up in a woody station wagon.  We’re talking identity.

In the NYT Dave Leonardt yearns for a Republican Party that actually represents some conservative views, instead of its simplistic partisan stance, often a cover for racism and stupidity.

Here is what he lists as some views they could responsibly reflect:

“…in favor of reducing the role of government in many areas of life and expanding the role of the market.

There are similarly serious arguments in favor of immigration restrictions, abortion restrictions, a more hawkish Syria policy, more competition in education and any number of other conservative positions.”

I looked at these and said, “Wait a minute!”

I am dismayed at the ignorance and ham-handedness of government a lot, and I see a lot to like in a market, if the market is governed properly, and I see a lot wrong with the way regulation works, and the way government works.  I see a lot to dislike in the modern corporation and the corporate-dominated state.

I’ve posted about immigration — I can see virtue in helping people in need, but there is a difference between that and welcoming people who want to keep their own culture and live their life that way when they are here.  If they want to learn English and live as Americans, then they should be able to come.  Otherwise, just take a timeout here until they can go back.  So I say there needs to be a middle ground, where we can be humanitarian but still safeguard American culture, at least to some extent.

Abortion - nah!  I’m for abortion, as necessary, on demand, only restricted when the fetus is viable.

Syria hawkish policy — hell yeah!  I think we should have bombed the Damascus airfield when the Red Line was crossed, and I don’t see “working with Russia.”  Russia is a hellhole.  Politically, how did they ever help the world except for WWII, which was in their own national interest?  Political ideas from Russia?  Anyone?  Culture OK, politics not OK.  And now, true to form, it’s Russian nationalism pure and simple.  Yes, it’s hard to get into Syria and distinguish opposition to an awful regime, war criminals (along with the Russians), from those who would have an Islamist state.  But it would have been good to hobble the regime, and now to establish some safety zones.

More competition in education — absolutely!  Public schools will never change from within, ever, and they are shortchanging everyone.

So, color me shocked by recognition.  I still can’t picture myself as a conservative.  Notice he doesn’t say anything about income distribution, or strengthening equal access to success.  Those are important.

My friend Colleen Kraft, with whom I share a Myers-Briggs classification (ENTP), and with whom I generally agree, says I’m socially liberal and fiscally conservative.  My old friend Jonathan Gross, who I think is conservative, says I’m a centrist.  Oh, God.  Maybe that’s just what I am.  That sounds so dorky!  I want to be vibrant, alive, incisive!  I guess a centrist could be that.  I dunno.  I think Snowden did us a big favor and should get a year, maybe, suspended if possible.  Is that Centrist?  I dunno.

I guess you have to wear what fits you.  Sigh!

Budd Shenkin