Trump’s charisma

Donald Trump’s rise shows a nation woefully descending into a “cult-of-personality” politics that prefers “charisma” over “policy substance.” So says Wall Street Journal columnist, Bret Stephens (8/31/15). It is true that a good chunk of the electorate, especially in the GOP, fed up with politicians and unacquainted with policy nuance, finds Trump’s brash style and showy disregard for political correctness sufficient grounds for support. I don’t know if that counts as “charisma,” but if it does, Stephens shouldn’t be surprised. We’ve always put charisma over ideas. That’s why we can flip-flop from Reagan to Clinton to Geo. W. Bush to Obama. The common thread is clearly not ideology. But Obama had charisma over McCain and Romney, Bush looked charismatic with his guy-next-door grin beside the wooden Gore or feckless Kerry. Reagan had charisma in spades over his much smarter opponents. And Clinton’s “aw shucks” swagger could charm the pants off … well, you get the point. This charisma fetish may apply to any democracy without a universally educated populace but is perhaps increasingly acute in the America of reality TV and radio demagoguery, where a good education (if you can still afford it) will get you scarlet lettered as “cultural elite” and cost you that one big break you might have had on the Jerry Springer show.


Russell Brand and Me

Dear Russell,

I meant what I said in my recent kudo review of Revolution. If you’ll permit a near-certain misuse of a UK idiom, balls up to your social vision, politics, and witty delivery. I agree with you that late capitalism is nearing its end, as the exponential growth of consumption upon which it depends is now hitting its ecological limits. I’d like to play devil’s advocate though, if only to diversity our intellectual resources for the coming paradigm shift. I’ll start with your pet peeve, voting. I hate to bring up the voting thing, since it really is a small part of your overall vision, and the media has magnified it as if it were your core point and not just a corollary, but I can’t help it. It’s an interesting nugget. I understand your rationale for not voting – Establishment “democracies,” which serve only their corporate masters, are rapidly destroying social and ecological equilibrium, and voting only gives them the mass “buy-in” they need to extend their program of annihilating planetary resources to serve the 1%. Good point, but I can think of three pressures pushing me the opposite way, toward voting.

  • Long-term/short-term goals. In my favorite slave autobiography, that of Olaudah Equiano, Olaudah’s first move after gaining his freedom is to go into a plantation venture with one of his former masters, on the condition that he be assigned the task of picking slaves from the slave ships. Although his long-term goal was abolition, his short-term goal was to guarantee that some of these unfortunates – and especially his own countrymen – would be treated well. Perhaps I too would not want my long-term vision, remarkably like yours, to scuttle my short-term goals. I’m not as confident as you that the past six years under Obama are no different than they would have been under another George W. Bush. I think that lives are being affected presently and that something is to be gained short term. And I’m not willing to sacrifice that for a still far-from-certain mirage of revolution. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t condemn your position. I think you should hold to your position and I to mine. We have to acknowledge – even celebrate – our differences openly, knowing that in the big picture we’re all on this ride together.
  • Maybe I’m just older than you, which makes me (for better or for worse) more patient. You note that the revolution must begin subjectively, as a revolution in human sensibility. I agree and am perhaps even more concerned than you that if the objective forces of revolution get ahead of the subjective changes, we are in danger of a hijacking by less than idealistic factions (something The Beatles and The Who sang of during our archival hippie revolution). I believe it is this fear – that the objective forces of revolution outstrip the inner revolution – that caused Gandhi to go on a fast and call off the non-cooperation movement when his own supporters responded to violence with violence in the Chauri Chaura incident.
  • Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, argues that if we opt out, the big corporations and lobbyists will not, which means their influence will be even more unfettered, creating damage that even the Russell Revolution might not be able to reverse. I’m torn because I see your point, Russell, but Robert Reich’s position does give me pause before I forego voting.

I suppose I should be forthright and lay my vision of what may come past the next horizon line against yours for comparison/contrast. OK, since you asked, I will do so in a forthcoming piece. Like your vision, mine combines Age of Aquarius thinking with a little extra anarchy, so watch for the manifesto on this exciting and newly minted socio-political order, Aquarianarchy.

Your post-nationalist countryman,


The Case for Impeachment

Ronald Reagan famously asked in his 1980 presidential campaign, “Are you better off now than you were” when the incumbent, Jimmy Carter, took office. Sometimes the comparison is so stark that you simply need to impeach. Consider how things have changed between January 2009 when Obama took office and today:

  1. The economy was shrinking at an alarming 5.4%; now it’s growing at about 4%.
  2. The stock market had lost 40% of its value and was free-falling; now it has regained all of its value and gone on to record highs.
  3. We were losing 800,000 jobs per month; now we’re gaining 200,000 per month.
  4. The housing market was in crisis; now it’s stabilized.
  5. The auto industry was about to go bankrupt and crater the economy; now it’s running healthy profits.
  6. Young Americans were regularly coming home in body bags from foreign wars; now our combat units are out.
  7. We’ve eliminated Osama bin Laden, the Somali pirates who kidnapped Americans, the head of al-Shabaab (per Kenyan mall attack), and captured the guy behind the Benghazi attacks.
  8. After five presidents tried and failed at health care reform, the ACA (Obamacare) puts us one step closer to the affordable, universal health care that the rest of the West enjoys.
  9. Big banks had free reign; Obama pushed through Wall St regulations and credit card reforms mandating transparency in fees and rate increases.
  10. Pushed for a market-based cap on carbon and increased renewables such that wind capacity has tripled and solar capacity increased 16-fold.

We need to impeach the integrity of the media outlets that continually scream a false narrative about how this president had led us in the wrong direction.

Compromise and pluralism

Whereas the two major political parties in the U.S. used to have different agendas with reality as a common reference point, they’re now moving toward different realities, with nothing as a common reference point. This tendency may be with us for some time, given current deployments in communications technology, and it will eventually make democratic governance impossible. To avoid that, we must reclaim the virtues of compromise and pluralism. I’d go so far as to say that compromise is the first precondition of democracy. Any political party that rejects compromise as broadly as John Boehner seemed to do in the famous December 2010 interview on 60 Minutes betrays a preference for fascism – i.e., my party is right, all other parties are wrong, all compromise is unethical, and we will bring all our power to bear accordingly. In today’s Congress, Republicans are far and away the most intransigent in their scorn for compromise (and Boehner is by no means the worst offender). Perhaps Republicans rightly fear that part of their base that has become so rabid that the slightest gesture across the aisle can derail a re-election. So they go against President Obama on even obvious things like the START treaty renewal. So Mitt Romney says he would not agree to a deficit reduction deal that rolls back upper tier tax cuts, even if Democrats were to offer $10 in reduced spending for every $1 in new tax revenue. This kind of inflexibility does not bode well for those who would govern. But read on for some measure of criticism of my liberal allies.

My keynote, again, is that for democracy to function at all, you need different groups to come to the table and compromise and implement policies. When you leave the table, the objective is NOT to win everyone over to your side and curse everyone who still disagrees. You want everyone to have a clearer understanding of a plurality of positions, to have figured out ways of compromising and moving forward, and to leave still holding a plurality of viewpoints that can be brought to bear on the next problem. A table with diversified points of view is likelier in the long run to generate more lasting, more generally acceptable, and more creative policy decisions. But a spirit of compromise is prerequisite.

Now to critique my liberal brethren. Although in the public sphere of DC today, Democrats are more willing than Republicans to accept the value of compromise and pluralism, in the private sphere of late night discussions in kitchens and bars, the culprits are more evenly divided. Many of my liberal friends have that little fascist streak that says, “I’m right, the conservatives in this discussion are wrong, and at the end of the day I need to convince them or write them off as idiots.” To them also I say that if you want a healthy body politic, you’d better recognize that you debate politics with friends not always to win them over but to refine various political orientations that can be brought to bear later. If everyone leaves the table with your opinion, the discussion was only superficially a success.  You want plural views to prosper, although you want them to evolve and become more refined through the dialectic.

Did you build your own business?

Rarely does a phrase hit that conservatives and liberals can both seize as a rallying cry. Elizabeth Warren’s statement that “Nobody in this country got rich on his own,” reiterated less tactfully by Obama, is such a meme.

To conservatives, this shows the destructive socialist kernel in liberalism, denying individual effort and ingenuity in order to take from the producers and give to the non-producers. To liberals, it is a simple reminder that every successful capitalist venture makes material use of pre-existing social formations.

The funny thing is that the logic of this meme is built upon propositions that everyone can agree upon:

  1. Individual effort is a valuable driver in any business venture.
  2. Entrepreneurs who so drive the venture deserve ample recompense.
  3. Entrepreneurs draw upon existing social formations in building their business.
    (a) The entrepreneur was educated (through schooling and apprenticeship) by and within a social formation.
    (b) The entrepreneur’s workers were educated (through schooling and apprenticeship) by and within a social formation.
    (c) The entrepreneur drew upon and continues to draw upon existing technologies and infrastructure (transportation, communications, policing and judicial, trained work force, consumer base, etc.).
    (d) If the business has more than one employee, the profits of the business depend in part upon the labor of the employees.

No reasonable person on either side can dispute these propositions – a successful business depends in part upon the efforts and ingenuity of the entrepreneur and in part upon a pre-existing infrastructure. The real dispute comes down to a matter of emphasis. Rational conservatives will admit that social infrastructure plays a role, but assign that role a minor value compared to individual initiative. Rational liberals will admit the value of individual initiative, but emphasize the individual’s obligation to give back to the social infrastructure from which he or she so heavily drew.

Given these premises, most would agree that the successful businessperson with a number of employees should feed something back into the infrastructure through taxes. The only real dispute is what amount is a fair amount.

I could stop here, and leave this as a non-partisan analysis of the meme to see if both sides could agree to this much. But my conservative friends know me better than that, so I’ll follow up with my liberal conclusions. Like most Democrats, I believe that the owner of such a venture, or the CEO in the case of larger businesses, can in all fairness make 10, 20, 30 times as much as the average employee. If you have a dozen employees averaging $30,000 a year and you’re taking home a half million, good for you. Contrary to popular opinion, liberals are not out to soak the rich. But let’s face it, the wealthier you are, the more you are making from investments (and from the productivity of your work force) rather than from your personal productivity. Liberals say that you and I and Oprah should pay the same tax rates on our first $250,000, and that you and I and Oprah should pay a slightly higher rate on our income that falls over that line. In a country with huge income inequality, where the rich are fabulously rich, where the middle class is stagnant, and where the poor are hard-pressed to break out of poverty, that doesn’t seem too much to ask. We do all live and die, flourish and falter, within the same social infrastructure, and the wealthier you are, like it or not, the more you have gained from that infrastructure. To liberals, it’s just a matter of getting the investing elite to put a little bit of the surplus back into the infrastructure that supports the worker bees of productivity.

Who’s for the Middle Class?

Funny how Republicans and Democrats each think their party represents the middle class. My Republican friends can’t understand why we would vote for Democrats who want to take hard-earned middle class money and give it to bottom-feeders who are unwilling to work. My Democrat friends can’t understand why we would vote for Republicans who represent the top 1% at the expense of everyone else. So the battle lines are drawn.

The real question is not which side is more logical (both sides have an internal logic that makes sense), but which side’s logic best matches up to empirical evidence. On this score, I think the Democrats/liberals have an advantage, and here’s my reasoning.

I think both sides will agree that most of the wealth generated in the U.S. is generated by the productivity of the middle class. And if middle class income has stagnated for the past three decades, where is all the wealth going? Since 1980, 80% of all new wealth has gone to the top 1%. I don’t have numbers on where the other 20% of new wealth has gone, but I think it’s safe to say it’s more concentrated toward the top. So my conservative friends may be right that some of the fruits of middle-class productivity has gone to the bottom feeders (although I disagree when they paint all safety net recipients as such), but this is an infinitesimal trickle compared to the vast upflow of wealth to the investing elite.

Democratic Party policies that help the middle class to retain the fruits of its own productivity would include Obama’s payroll tax cut, which helps all of those who actually work for their money; reasonable universal health care to staunch the tide of middle-class health-related bankruptcies; Pell grants and low-interest loans instead of sending college students to predatory lenders and lifelong debt – basically protect education, tax rates, environmental quality, etc., that sustains the middle-class lifestyle. In return, they advocate letting the wealthy keep their full tax cut on their first $250,000, and pay a slightly higher percentage of the income that falls over that. (In other words, you and I and Bill Gates all pay the same rates on our first $250k, and you and I and Bill Gates all pay the same slightly higher rate on our income that falls over that.)

The Republican Party calls all of this “socialism.” Their plan, as articulated in the Paul Ryan budget, is to give additional tax cuts to the wealthiest tier, and offset that lost revenue by cutting Pell Grants, privatizing Medicare and increasing seniors’ out-of-pocket health costs, rolling back the social security retirement age so workers can put in a few more years before retiring, deregulating the biggest banks on Wall Street and the biggest polluters everywhere else. But if the Republican platform enhances the wealth of the 1% while putting a bit more burden on the middle class, how do they get so many of our middle-class friends and neighbors to go along? Well, through smokescreens. Two in particular:

(1)   Take the middle-class eye off the massive upflow of wealth and generate unrelenting road rage about the small trickle going to loafers at the bottom. I’ll agree with my conservative friends that welfare, although it does much good, is subject to much abuse, and I’m all for work requirements such as those initiated during Bill Clinton’s presidency. I’ll agree that as a moral issue this should be addressed. But on a macroeconomic level, the loafers on the bottom are insignificant. All statistics show that the redistribution of wealth over the past thirty years has been dramatically to the top few percentiles, with no net redistribution downward.

(2)   Keep selling the logic of “trickle-down” economics. That is the theory that if you put enough money at the top, they will create jobs and the money will trickle down through the classes. The logic makes perfect sense and as such is marketable. The problem again is that the logic doesn’t match the empirical evidence. Tax rates on the highest tiers have plummeted and stayed rock-bottom for 30 years, and all statistics show that wealth has steadily flowed upward and continues to stay there after three decades.

So both the liberal and conservative logics of my opening paragraph each match up to some aspect of reality. But the conservative logic takes a statistically insignificant problem with red meat possibilities and smokes and mirrors it into the most pressing crisis of the day, a crisis they can then “fix” by shifting more wealth to the top. The liberal logic addresses a much more significant problem and addresses it in way that can mitigate the outward flow of wealth from the middle class. If you want to see policies that really help the middle class retain the fruits of its own productivity, it’s not a close call – the Democratic Party will get you closer to that end. If you think that it’s only fair that the wealthiest Americans pay lower and lower tax rates, and you’re willing to place a slightly heavier burden on the middle and lower classes to achieve that fairness, the Republican Party, at least in its 2012 incarnation, is for you.

Is There Really a Republican War on Women

(Originally presented to the nonprofit WELL — Women Empowered and Loving Life)

 There has been much play in the media lately about a Republican Party “war on women.” The first point of dispute is whether there really is a “war on women.” Some media outlets claim this is just Democratic Party hype to win the female vote in the election this fall. Others say the war is really happening. Some WELL members may already be well informed about this issue and may or may not choose to read on. But for the young women in my audience who have not been particularly interested in politics, I ask you especially to read on, because whether or not you find politics interesting, the choices you will or will not have in your everyday life next year and the year after are being determined right now.

First, don’t believe the doubters. There is a war on women and it is being driven by the Republican Party. I have been paying attention to politics all of my life, and women’s rights are being more hotly contested right now than at any time since the 1970s. The Republican Party has been hijacked by right-wing extremists who are highly energized to roll back rights that women have taken for granted for the past 40 years. Just take a look at the chart below for a sample of what’s happened in the past year alone.

And this is not the end of it. Just recently (March 14, 2012), the Mississippi State House passed a law that would (1) require doctors to perform an invasive transvaginal ultrasound on abortion seekers, (2) prohibit the abortion if a heartbeat is present, (3) allow an exemption for rape only if the woman can prove she was raped, and (4) define life as beginning at conception, basically giving the state final control over every pregnant woman’s body. Right now inTennessee, a Republican-sponsored bill moving through the House mandates publishing the names of each doctor who performs an abortion and detailed statistics about the woman having the procedure. It’s almost as if these Republican legislators are saying, “A woman’s decision about abortion is not painful enough already; we’re going to mandate an array of invasive intra-vaginal procedures that are medically unnecessary, shame her privately and publicly, and make sure that she carries emotional scars for the rest of her life.”

Even if you’re not political, even if you think you may never have to make a painful choice about abortion yourself, you may wake up next year and suddenly find that you have no option for contraception coverage in your insurance, and that your local family planning center can’t screen for breast cancer or give Pap smears because it has been defunded by the government. These are not political abstractions; they are things that the Republican Party is publicly calling for all around the country on a daily basis right now. It’s the worst I’ve seen since the 70s. And don’t believe anyone who says both parties are just as bad. Neither party is perfect, but Republican politicians are overwhelmingly trying to roll back women’s rights and Democrats trying to hold the line on women’s rights. The most important woman in the country right now when it comes to ensuring that women’s issues get fair play in the fall elections is Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Chair of the Democratic National Committee. Google “DNC Women’s Institute” to get on her mailing list.

Finally, don’t fall for those who would cast this as a “men vs. women” issue. When women and progressive men stand together, we make a strong majority of voters. Those who are against women’s rights would like nothing better than to drive a wedge between women and progressive men. The real fault line is much more accurately Republican vs. Democrat, with a large majority of male and female Democrats in favor of maintaining women’s hard-earned rights, and a majority of Republicans trying to chip those rights away in every legislature.

You don’t have to listen for more than a few minutes to President Obama’s Republican challengers to get this. Romney, Gingrich, Santorum are falling all over themselves to prove they would be the first to do away with Planned Parenthood (even though 97% of its health services are not abortion-related), the first to mandate the most humiliating procedures for any woman seeking an abortion, the first to support any business who wants to cut birth control pills from their insurance. Sign up with Debbie Wasserman Schulz. This is a crucial time to promote and vote for President Obama and the Democrats.