Sunday, April 23, 2017

Congratulations, Seve, On Passing The Baton Well

I turned 60 last year, and that, probably combined with the fact that I am now a grandfather twice-over, has given me some incentive to think about the proverbial meaning of life.  And I've come to one conclusion, one that I hope has some usefulness beyond me.

Life certainly isn't about acquiring "stuff."  We don't really acquire "stuff"; we basically rent it for a period of time.  Thereafter, it's either disposed of or destroyed.  What lasts a lot longer is the impact we have on people--our families, our friends, our colleagues/co-workers, our customers/clients, our neighbors, our fellow citizens, everyone with whom we come into contact. And, in a digital age, our ability to come into contact with people is greater than ever before. Even the smallest communication we have online can create ripples that, to echo Russell Crowe in "Gladiator," echo in history.

To me, it's a little like a baton race.  Each of us gets to carry a baton for a time, and our lives, our experiences, our wisdom, our love, our hate, whatever makes us what we are and what we become, transform that baton, for better or for worse.  And then, when we die, we effectively hand the baton off to those who survive us, and what we've done with it through the life we've lived either makes the race better, or worse.  That's really what life is all about--handing off the baton in a way that makes the lives of others hopefully better.

Which is why I enjoyed reading this article about Sergio Garcia winning the 2017 Masters golf tournament on the birthday of his late mentor, Seve Ballesteros, and paying tribute to him in the process.  In a very real sense, Garcia's triumph was also Ballesteros' triumph as well.

In other words, Seve passed the baton well.  Congratulations to them both.  And may we all learn how to pass it as well as Seve did.

Not Just The Death Of A Congressman

If you didn't live through the Watergate scandal, you really missed something.  A President who had just been re-elected by a historic landslide vote frittered away his political accomplishments by trying to protect lower-level campaign workers from prosecution for undeniably illegal acts.  Putting this in the vernacular of criminal law, he obstructed justice.  And he memorialized the obstruction on a tape-recording system in the Oval Office, giving Congress the ability to impeach him and thereafter leave him vulnerable to criminal prosecution though evidence that established his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.  But he beat Congress and the criminal justice system to the punch, by resigning and being pardoned by his successor.

It shook our system of government, and the faith of the American people in it, to its core.  But what held everything together, and got us past this terrible episode in our history, was the willingness of partisans to come together.  On the Supreme Court, Justices appointed by Democratic and Republican Presidents came together to force Richard Nixon to surrender the evidence of his perfidy that he himself had manufactured.  And in Congress, Democrats and Republicans likewise came together to face the evidence and produced three articles of impeachment against Nixon.  They were never voted on by the full House--Nixon's resignation obviated the need for that--but, once the Oval Office tapes were produced, there was no doubt that any vote to impeach would have been bipartisan.

One of those members of Congress on the Republican side was Lawrence J. Hogan, Sr., father of the current governor of Maryland.  Hogan was the first member of his party to indicate that he would vote for Nixon's impeachment, paving the way for a bipartisan resolution of an American tragedy. One can scarcely imagine such an outcome in today's Washington.

Which is why Hogan's death this past Friday, at the age of 88, feels not just like the end of a Congressman's life, but the end of an America that could come together to meet its greatest challenges and overcome them.  I pray that I'm wrong.  But I thank him for his service, and I hope that others will rise in our present crisis to follow his example.

It's Not Just Manufacturing--Or Men, For That Matter

In an earlier post, I wrote about the devastation of small-town industrial middle America, and how it contributed to the level of economic desperation that made Donald Trump an attractive candidate to many of the residents of these towns.  In doing so, I touched on the role that the economic policies of the 1980s contributed to that desperation.  I neglected to mention, however, the role that automation has played, and continues to play, in creating the desperation and making it even worse.

Nothing, not even the level of federal involvement in my earlier post (which I continue to advocate) is going to make the devastated communities of our country what they used to be.  And automation is the single greatest reason for that right now.  Even if the companies themselves came back, they wouldn't be offering many new jobs, unless those jobs were in robotics.  And even the availability of overseas work forces don't matter; the jobs that were exported from the United States, and many of the indigenous ones, are being automated out of existence.

We're familiar with the role that robotics have played in eliminating manufacturing jobs, but, until recently, less has been said about the role that e-commerce has played in devastating traditional, bricks-and-mortar retail shopping.  No aspect of retail shopping is immune:  not luxury retailing, not suburban shopping, not even the traditional urban centers that long ago adapted to the flight of businesses into the suburbs.  And this guarantees a degree of gender equality in the devastation. While most manufacturing jobs have been held by men, most jobs in retail are held by women. One is forced to wonder whether the loss of retail jobs will get the same political attention that has been given to manufacturing losses.

In any case, it's time to take technology, and make it work for everyone, and not just the 1%.  How about it, progressives?  Want a 2018 issue?  Here you go--something that could bring male and female voters together.

California Leads The Way--But Will America Follow?

I've made several posts here about how California, which led the way for the conservative revolution of the 1970s and 1980s, seems poised to lead the way for the nation to follow a different direction. More proof of that can be found here, as Californians decide not only to tackle the infrastructure crisis head-on, but also to do so by--gasp!--raising taxes!

Can you imagine the current leadership in Congress attempting to do any such thing?  Of course not. Its base still believes in tax cuts that pay for themselves, and in the view that no problems are so terrible or inevitable that they can't be ignored in favor of short-term tactical gains.  So the country crumbles, street by street.  Who cares?  What matters to the GOP is this:  how can we blame it on the Democrats?

And what about the Democrats?  Actually, it's a Democratic Governor, Jerry Brown (term-limited, sadly, and therefor on his way out of office) and a state legislature with a supermajority of Democrats, that are responsible for this remarkable achievement.  Proof of what can be done when Republicans don't get in the way.

Replicating this on a national scale, on the other hand, is a very different story.  Getting another Democratic President is doable, especially in light of the currently collapsing popularity of the current one.  Getting a Democratic Congress with a majority large enough to override Republican opposition seems very unlikely--unless, of course, the Democrats decide to modify the current filibuster rule or, as I've suggested, eliminating it altogether.

Whether or not they do eliminate it, Democrats in Washington and around the country need to grow a spine when it comes to taxes.  As California is proving, the people are ahead of them on this issue. It's time for the party of the people to catch up to them.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

What Should Wall Street Do For Main Street? Plenty!

In the wake of Donald Trump's unexpected (and equally unwanted) victory in last fall's presidential election, a lot has been written about Trump voters in the America between the coasts, especially voters in small towns largely abandoned by industry, by their neighbors, and all too often by the state and local governments that supposedly serve their interests.

This process of abandonment, of course, is not a recent one:  if it can be said to have a starting date, it was undoubtedly the economic recession of the early 1980's, which began the slow-motion destruction of industrial America in the Upper Midwest and beyond.  But even the de-industrialization of the nation had already started before that, as manufacturing opportunities for American companies opened up overseas and the slow march of good-paying union jobs leaving the country began in earnest.

I knew all of this, and yet even I found myself shocked by some of the articles and photo essays I have seen over the past several months.  Two of them can be found here (a photo essay on the decline and fall of Cairo, Illinois), and here (an article by the author of a book on a former "all-American town" now in steep decline after corporate raiding destroyed the town's principal manunfacturing business).  No one can bear witness, even by way of the media, to the human degradation portrayed in these stories and not feel that something must be done.

But what?

Trump, to put it mildly, is the least likely savior for the people in these towns, and I suspect that many of them, even the ones who voted for him, know it, deep down inside.  Beneath the flashiness of his real estate projects and the power of his television persona lies ... well, not very much.  Just a trust-funded, four-times-bankrupt con artist who talks his way in and out of trouble.  Desperation made many of his voters think that there might be more to him than that, when he was just a candidate.

But he's not just a candidate any more.  And, sadly, for many in even the most desperate parts of small-town America, reality, slowly but surely, is beginning to sink in.  It may have sunk in quite a bit, in fact.

And then, I saw this.

And I began to ask myself:  what if a combination of tax breaks and business grants at the Federal level could be created to help create buyers for these small towns and bring them back to life?

What if this program was paid for by a tax on Wall Street, particularly on the kinds of merger-and-acquistion transactions that help to destroy towns like Lancaster, Ohio?  There may, in fact, be far more support for this type of taxation than many people realize.

What if it was also geared toward advancing the cause of a sustanable economy, with requirements for the support of renewable resources?

What if it also encouraged the promotion of the arts?  As a theater preservationist, I was particularly struck by the image of the Gem Theater in the Cairo photo essay.  What if its restoration could help lead the way toward the greater restoration of Cairo?

Are you listening, Democrats?  There's an opportunity here to put pressure on The Donald and pry his voters away from him?  Are you up to taking advantage of it?  G-d knows, I hope so.

Opportunity For Democrats In A Constitutional Disaster

Well, as you all know by now, it happened.  Senate Democrats successfully filibustered the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, under the then-prevailing rules of the Senate. And Mitch McCONnell, taking exception to one Democratic filibuster in the wake of the near-record number of filibusters he and his Republican colleagues launched, did what you would expect an end-justifies-the-means politician to do:  he changed the rules.  He did this, of course, on top of an unprecedented year-long blockade against a nomination made by the previous (Democratic) President.  And thus, McCONnell, Donald Trump, and the conservative moment won, at the expense of the comnity of the Senate, the judicial independence of the Supreme Court, and the general sense of fairness that undergirds any real understanding of the Constitution and the government it was meant to create.

And Gorsuch wasted no time in taking his seat in such a way as to disgrace himself and telegraph the level of harm that his vote on the Court will achieve.  He started at his swearing-in ceremony by talking about having "inherited" his position on the Court from a "great man."  Leaving that assessment of Antonin Scalia alone for now, that comment is unintentionally revealing when it comes to Gorsuch's views of constitutional government:  a property right that belongs exclusively to conservatives.  And, after a spectaularly rocky first day on the Court, he confirmed that limited understanding of the law by voting for the execution of a man whose attorney was drunk in court.

But give McCONnell credit.  By his standard, he point a point of the board for his party and his President, in the wake of the latter's epic failures (the failed travel ban, the collapse of the anti-Obamacare movement, the collapse of tax reform, etc.).  So far, GOP 1, Democrats 10 and counting. It's no longer a shutout.

Truth be told, in fact, Democrats should consider themselves set free by all of this.  McCONnell is too cluelessly focused on short-term results to understand that what he has ultimately done by setting fire to establish precedent is, in fact to create a new precedent.  And a potentially dangerous one for him and his party.

In effect, McCONnell has created a world in which the advice and consent that the Constitution requires the Senate to provide with respect to Constitutional nominees is whatever the Senate wants it to be.  No due process is required.  Not a hearing.  Not even a vote.  In effect, the process can be no process at all.

Indeed, it could be any number of possibilities.  It can be much more than just refusing to hold hearings and a vote.  It could be trial by combat or ordeal--concepts with a great deal of tradition behind them, and therefore with great potential appeal for conservatives.  It could be a principled refusal to accept any nominees from a particular President--based, for example, on perceived sexual abuse by that President.  Anyone who saw Trump put his hands on his grown-up daughter's derrierre on television at last summer's Republican National Convention knows what I'm talking about.

There's so much more.  What about a bill to expand the number of Supreme Court justices, timed to allow a Democratic President and Senate to make their appointments?  The number nine isn't sacred; the Constitution specifies no minimum or maximum number of Justices.  What about a bill to limit the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court?  No constitutional barrier to that, either.  What about withholding funding for Gorsuch's seat?  Again, no law agin it.

All that's lacking to make any of this happen is a willingness for Democrats to understand that pacifism is no strategy against an opponent with no respect for the rights of anyone but themselves. This nation was born in battle.  Its greatest advances have frequenly been born in battle.  It's time for Democrats to learn how to fight.  Most of all, it's time for them to want to fight.  The people they represent want and need them to do so, now more than ever.  Are they listening?

Let's hope so.  And let's hope they see the opening that McCONnell and his colleagues have opened up for them.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Who Do We Help When We Help The Undocumented?

Why, ourselves, of course!

By 'the undocumented," of course, I'm referring to those folks normally referred to as "illegal."  But, since it's impossible to pass a law against the existence of people, "undocumented" makes so much more sense.  The undocumented are simply people who are here, but their papers aren't in order. And, if you had any idea of how costly and complicated it is to get one's papers in order, you would begin to understand how inevitable it is to have so many people who are here, but not under the full color of law.

Instead, so many of the people who are anti-undocumented based on racism or ignorance (if that's not repeating myself) defend their views in terms of public safety.  Immigrants are a menace to our communities, and that justifies enormous public effort and expense to remove them from our midst.

But, leaving aside the fact that this view simply isn't true, statistically or otherwise, it is actually dangerous to not provide assistance to the undocumented.  Like it or not, the undocumented have taken jobs native-born Americans will not do, raising families and building community roles in the process.  They have become part of the social and economic fabric of America, while we have looked the other way, perhaps ashamed of the fact that all of us have played some role in their exploitation.

Looking the other way has a price tag, however.  Here is at least part of that price tag.  On the other hand, facing reality has real benefits.  Here is an example.

We live in a world in which money moves around it at the speed of light, yet people can only move at the speed of sludge.  We need comprehensive immigration reform--not just at the national level, but at the international level as well.  Perhaps, if Americans faced fewer obstacles to travelling abroad, and enjoy more opportunity in the process, perhaps they will recognize more easily that, when they hurt the undocumented, they hurt themselves.

Sorry For Getting Back On This Hobby-Horse, BUT ...

... once again, the Republicans have it completely wrong on the subject of taxes.  We, the people don't think we're over-taxed.  We think you're under-taxed.  And here's the proof.

The problem, of course, is translating this into an election-year message, and thereafter into public policy.  And that requires getting Democrats to get over their fears of talking about taxes, and start talking about all of the things for which taxes pay.  Social Security.  Medicare.  The strongest military anywhere in the world (sorry, Donald Trump, but it's true).  Veterans' benefits.  Our system of railroads, highways, and airports.  Lower prices for farm products.  Our system of National Parks. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which gave the children of the world "Sesame Street."  And on, and on, and on.  To say nothing of the public benefits going to the unemployed and the underemployed in the red states that the red-state Republicans keep trying to cut.

Compared to all of this, the government spending that gets red-state voters riled up--public benefits for the urban poor--take up the tiniest portion of our national deficit and debt.  You know what most of that debt comes from?  From tax cuts for the rich that were supposed to pay for themselves, but didn't.  Instead, those tax cuts became the most lucrative foreign aid program in history--if, by foreign aid, you mean deposits in off-shore bank accounts and the enslavement of foreign workers in sweatshops.  (And, of course, I mean exactly that.)

And don't even get me started on the portion of our national debt that paid for wars into which we were lied.

So, Democrats, start talking about what taxes pay for.  Remind them that taxes, to borrow a phrase, are the price that we pay for civilization.  Remind them of all the people who gave not simply their treasure, but their lives, to help us build that civilization.  And don't be afraid to suggest that real patriots are people who pay their taxes, proudly.  Or that the real freeloaders are the so-called "producers" who produce nothing but empty rhetoric, aimed at emptying our pockets into theirs.

Sorry, But What You're Really Mad At Is Yourself

I've been busy with cleaning for, and observing, Passover, so I'm a little late in posting.  By now, therefore, you should be familiar with the story of the doctor/passenger who was violently removed from a United Airlines flight as a last resort for making room on an overbooked flight (room, as it turned out, for United employees).  If for some strange reason you haven't heard about it, and absolutely if you have not had the experience of seeing footage of this episode, here's a chance to get up to speed.

The linked article is an essay--a very good one--outlining the view that this debacle in customer relations is emblematic of a system that allows a handful of economically and politically powerful people to systematically oppress everyone else.  Or, as we like to call it politely, capitalism.

But capitalism wasn't always this oppressive.  From the end of the Second World War until about 1980, the United States was building upon the New Deal and its victory in the war to move toward a mixed economy, one that tempered the potential overreach of capitalism and capitalists and the potential for disaster their employees might face.  American did not move as far as European countries did to create and maintain a social welfare state.  There were few if any nationalizations of industries.  The Taft-Hartley Act limited the power of unions to organize the workforce.  But there was a limited welfare state for the poor, the elderly, and the disabled; it didn't meet all of the needs of these groups, but it reduced the suffering enough for state governments and charities to make a difference.  And there was always the hope that, in time, we could find ways to build a social welfare state that protected everyone.

But about 1980, all of that changed.

We were sold the biggest bill of goods in our nation's history.  We were told that all of our needs would be fulfilled if we stopped trusting in government, and put all of our faith in the hands of the investing class.  All we had to do was trust them, and give them unlimited room to move, and all would be well.

And we bought it.  Hook line and sinker.  Even Democrats were at a total loss for words at this turn of events.  So much so that they started to pretend to sound sort-of-kind-of-like Republicans.  And thus we ended up with two Republican Parties.  And no hope for turning the tide.

Today, the tide has gone all the way out, perhaps forever.  And we have only ourselves to blame.

We, the people, who voted for this nightmare, time and time again, even when we saw our purchasing power shrinking, our job security vanishing, our hopes for a decent retirement and a better future for our children change from realities into fantasies.  We, the people, who bought the bill of goods without examining it too closely, without checking it against the ledger of history, which would have told us that we had tried this before, and it had failed us then as well.  We, the people, who mistook a smile and a shoeshine for sound public policy, and who have built the snares that trap us though our gullibility, our laziness, our greed, and our simple-minded faith in the people who tell us the lies we're itching to hear.

We should be mad at United Airlines, and all corporations that live to monetize every aspect of our lives, at the expense of basic human decency.  The overbooking of flights is merely one example, although it effectively illustrates how corporations get away with systemically disrupting our lives while buying us out at the same time, thereby turning us all into commodities.

We should be mad at all Americans, who either deliberately voted this insanity into power, or didn't do enough to stop it.

But each of us needs to start dealing with our anger by looking in the mirror.  I'm no exception.  I have spent a lot of time lately asking myself what I can do to turn things around.  And, if you want to turn things around, and you haven't started looking in your mirror, start now.  Before United Airlines can get its hands on another passenger.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Ted Koppel, Unindicted Co-Conspirator

I notice that Ted Koppel, formerly the host of ABC News' late-night news program "Nightline," got a certain amount of Internet buzz out of his grilling of Sean Hannity on today's edition of "CBS News Sunday Morning."  This grilling culminated in Koppel's assertion that Hannity, and others like him, have "attracted people who are determined that ideology is more important than facts."  You can see this portion of the interview here.

My first reaction to this was, well, better late than never.

After all, it was Koppel, and his relentless prosecution of then-President Jimmy Carter during the Iranian hostage crisis, that helped propel Ronald Reagan and his faith-based politics, including his faith-based economics, into the White House, and subsequently poison our politics over the last 40 years as Koppel, and other right-leaning reporters, helped Americans across the country to determine that "ideology is more important than facts."

And it didn't help that Koppel had the Rev. Jerry Falwell on "Nightline" as an almost nightly guest, ready, willing and able to use the program as an expansion of his political "ministry."  Guests from the other side of the political spectrum were fewer and further between.  To be sure, this trend began to abate in the wake of the televangelical scandal of the late 1980s.  And Koppel was also one of the first reporters to focus an entire program on global warming (in 1989, no less).  But there's no doubt that Koppel's earlier work on "Nightline" helped to make the world of television journalism safer for the Sean Hannitys of the world.

Perhaps this interview is Koppel's way of doing penance.  He should know that there are many people, including me, that are not going to let him off the hook quickly.

The Dollars And Sense Of Investing In The Arts

It's a shame that we now seem to live in a fact-free world.  Because, if facts mattered, especially as they related to the economy, we wouldn't be talking about cutting funding about the arts.  And certainly not about eliminating it altogether, as Donald Trump has proposed.

We would and should be doubling it.  Tripling it.  Quadrupling it.  Anything but cutting it.

Because I could make a compelling case for how much nicer, prettier, livelier, and just plain better life is with the arts as part of it.  Many people could, whether they are artists or patrons.  But not even many of those people realize that the arts don't just make our culture better.  They make our economy better, and in a very big way.

To see exactly how big, take a look at this article, and do the math.  For every dollar given to and spent by the NEA, more than $17,000 is added to the economy.  If we did little more than double the amount currently provided to the NEA, we could very well end up with a federal budget surplus based on that expenditure alone.

In other words, all that would be needed would be for Trump's family to move into the White House, or for Trump to keep the golf schedule that he promised as a candidate that he would keep.

And the fact that he was born in, and has lived most of his life in, the city that relies on the arts for an enormous chunk of its economy makes his proposed NEA cut all the more incomprehensible.

Federal investments in the arts and humanities are one of the few expenditures by our government that actually pays for itself, and then some.  Don't let Trump, or his GOP cronies in Congress, do it.

Why The Filibuster Must Be Abolished--Period

I have written previously about the upcoming vote in the U.S. Senate on the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to take the place of Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court.  Specifically, I wrote about the need for Senate Democrats to oppose the nomination by way of a filibuster, even if the ultimate consequence is a decision by Senate Republicans to eliminate the use of the filibuster rule for Supreme Court nominations, much as Senate Democrats had done for all other presidential appointments when they held the Senate majority.

But as the vote nears, and the prospects of a filibuster of Judge Gorsuch becomes a bit more likely after Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer pledged to make it happen, I've broadened my view on this subject.  I believe that it is time--perhaps past time--to eliminate the filibuster altogether.

Why?

To begin with, the rule itself has a worse-than-checkered history.  Our educational system and political culture has led us to believe that the rule has existed from the birth of the Republic as part of a grander design, to enable the Senate to serve, in the words of George Washington, as a kind of "saucer" to cool the passions of the more-frequently-elected members of the House of Representatives.  In addition, we have been led to believe that the filibuster rule has helped to promote the reputation of the Senate as the "World's Greatest Deliberative Body," by encouraging debate on the issues of the day and the legislation designed to address them.

However, if you look at the actual history of the rule itself, you will find that (a) its adoption was somewhere between a mistake and an afterthought, and (b) it has never been useful in promoting anything but contention and deadlock.  I offer this article from the Brookings Institution's Web site for a lengthier discussion of this history.

And matters have gotten worse since a rule changed allowed for what we have today:  filibusters that take place without a single word uttered by the filibustering senator.  At least when the "talking filibuster" was required, senators who wanted to stop a bill by delay had to sing for their proverbial supper.  Now, they don't have to do that.  The easier it is to obstruct, the greater the likelihood is that there will be obstruction.

Even worse, the greater likelihood of obstruction has been cynically used by Senate majorities of both parties, as a way of avoiding tough votes on controversial measures.  Take the recent (as in last week) House vote on repealing and replacing the now not-so-unpopular Affordable Care Act (yes, "Obamacare," if you will).  Even if Paul Ryan had managed to get his rancid piece of legislation out of the House he allegedly controls, Mitch McCONnell would have allowed the Democrats to filibuster it to death, by finding that it didn't meet the Byrd rule requirement as a piece of revenue-only legislation and was thus subject to the 60-vote cloture hurdle before it could get to an actual vote. Thus, Senate Republicans wouldn't have had to take the heat for throwing 24 million Americans off of their health insurance--and the Democrats could be blamed for it all.

Thus, the filibuster harms the American legislative process in two ways.  It prevents, on the one hand, good ideas from being given a chance to be tested, and ultimately benefit the American people, and, on the other hand, it allows bad ideas to hide behind a threshold that would otherwise allow them to be exposed for what they are.

Some people object to the elimination of the filibuster rule on the grounds that it protects the rights of the minority.  This may be particularly important in the case of appointments of federal judges to lifetime jobs.  However, if judges of a particular philosophical bent become too numerous, or if legislation yields more harm than benefits, then there's already a check-and-balance built into the Constitutional process; it's called the next election.  Apart from this, that's what the judicial system is built for in any case--to protect the rights guaranteed to everyone by the Constitution.  That's the job of the judiciary, not the filibuster.  One suspects that both Senators and voters will be a lot more cautious and thorough in their vetting of judicial candidates if they know in advance that those candidates will be easier to confirm, and difficult to dislodge after that.

This is why there is no reason that Senate Democrats should hesitate for a minute in filibustering Judge Gorsuch's nomination.  If doing so is the beginning of the end of the filibuster, it will ultimately be good for all of us.  And Judge Gorsuch, in any case, is well worth opposing.  I have already made my case for doing so; here is another eloquent argument along the same lines.  And, if that doesn't do it for you, take a look at this.

Your move, Senator Schumer and fellow Senate Democrats.  Do the right thing.  Stand firm.  Stand strong.  And stand for Americans of all political persuasions.  If it means the beginning of the end of the filibuster, you'll have done your job in any case.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Uniqueness Of Our Cities, And The People Who Make Them That Way

I learned about the death of Jimmy Breslin this morning, and found myself mourning not only his death, but the death of a certain, quirky kind of New York along with him.  As a columnist for four different newspapers, and an author of books (fiction and non-fiction), Breslin had a talent for finding stories about what could, in a different era, be called characters.  That is, people who stood out from the crowd, for one reason or another, and weren't worried about what other people thought about it. Of course, Breslin himself was one of those people, so perhaps that helped him find those stories.

His columns, and those of other writers from what feels like a lost world of real journalism (like his New York Daily News colleague Pete Hamill), embody the New York I fell in love with many, many years ago.  A city of characters.  May it always stay that way, and may there always be writers like Jimmy Breslin (or almost like him) to tell us about it.

But Baltimore has its own unique individuals as well.  Take, for example, Rebecca Hoffberger, who launched a museum that is truly unique to Baltimore, but one with a reputation that extends far outside of it.  Take a look.

There is something about urban living, as opposed to its suburban and rural counterparts, that seems to encourage both a greater understanding of people (and empathy for them), and at the same time a willingness to be adventurous in meeting their needs.  Perhaps that is, to borrow from an observation of Sherlock Holmes (by way of Conan Doyle) due to the fact that, in cities, people are quite literally on top of each other.  They are forced to interact and, at the same time, have little room for pretense or artificiality in doing so.

May that always be true, in Baltimore, in New York, and all across America.

Once Again, Humpback Whales Have A Message For Us

It's hard to believe it's been just over 30 years since "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" was released in theaters.  This is the one "Star Trek" film familiar even to non-fans, in part because of the humor derived from its time-travel story frame, but also because the story itself was built around the idea that saving humpback whales in the 20th century was necessary for the survival of Earth in the 23rd century.  In its own way, the film made a very effective statement about the value of and the need for greater conservation of our planet--and perhaps made a real difference in preventing the extinction of many species of whales.

Believe it or not, whales are back in the news.  And they may, indirectly, be sending a message to us now that's just as important as the one they sent in "Star Trek IV" to the alien probe menacing the Earth.  Here is a story on CNN about humpback whales massing in large groups, for no scientifically discernible reason.  Thus far, the only observable aspect of the behavior of the so-called "supergroups" is that they appear to be focused on feeding.  But it is highly unusual, in that humpbacks usually are seen alone, in pairs, or in small groups, as noted in the story.

Somehow, it seems impossible for me to disconnect the behavior of these humpback supergroups from what's happening in our climate.  The more carbon dioxide trapped in our atmosphere, the warmer the oceans.  And the warmer the oceans, the more disruption in both the existence and location of food sources for many ocean species, including humpbacks.  Thus, the humpbacks have to congregate wherever they can find food.  And they may not be able to find it for very much longer.

The human race learned its lesson in "Star Trek IV" about the value of humpback whales, and conservation in general.  Can the human race, outside of movie theaters, relearn that lesson and apply it to its own future.  I hope and pray that it can.  These days, however, I'm forced to wonder.

If Trump Is The Next Carter, Is Bernie The Next Reagan?

For those of us still in the process of trying to make sense out of the presidential election and its consequences, this might be a useful place to start.  And a somewhat hopeful one as well, if you lean to the left.  The author makes a compelling case for viewing Donald Trump as occupying a place in presidential history roughly equivalent to Jimmy Carter.  It's an interesting comparison, especially if you contrast the differences in the personal lives of the two men.  Politically, however, it's a comparison that makes a great deal of sense.

Carter came to the White House in 1976, the first presidential election held after the Watergate scandal and Nixon's resignation.  He ran as an outside-the-Beltway candidate, promising never to lie and to provide a government, in his words, "as good as the American people."  His opponent, Gerald Ford, was Nixon's unelected successor, presiding over an uninspiring economy and a gaffe-prone image, the latter characteristic being most notable for launching the career of Chevy Chase.  On top of this, Ford had granted Nixon an unconditional, blanket pardon that covered all of Nixon's presidency.  By doing so, he effectively joined himself at the hip to the Watergate disgrace.

Despite all of these disadvantages, and the appeal of Carter as a newcomer to Washington, Ford almost won.  I recall going to bed at college the night of that election, convinced that Ford would win, and being surprised by waking up to a Carter victory.  A very, very narrow victory.  And no sooner had he done so than he found himself almost in what would become perpetual confrontation with a Congress controlled by his own party.  A Congress led by two of the last members of the New Deal generation, Tip O'Neill and Robert Byrd, and one that had demonstrated its independence and institutional fortitude in impeaching Nixon.  The outcome?  A "disjunctive" Presidency that lasted one term.  It would take 12 years for the Democratic party to reclaim the Oval Office.

Now, let's take a look at Trump.

Like Carter, he ran as an outsider, although he built that status not on the basis of his personal integrity (of which he has none).  Like Carter, he built his political popularity on flattering his voters, to which he added a willingness to mimic their worst characteristics, including threats of violence. Unlike Carter, he was running against a President presiding over a growing economy, but found a way to distract voters from that fact by relying on the glue that has held the national Republican coalition together for years--race.  In effect, Barack Obama's skin color became the equivalent of Ford's propensity for clumsiness.  And, much as Ford's pardon tied him to Nixon, Obama's continuation of the Bush-Cheney "perpetual war" in the Middle East (notwithstanding the Iraq withdrawal) tied him to his unpopular predecessors.  And, just like Carter, Trump won a late-night, nail-biting, justthisclose victory.

But, just like Carter, although Trump shares power with a Congress controlled by his own party, this Congress has no use for the populism of its President.  Like the O'Neil-Byrd Congress, Capitol Hill is in the grip of a rigid ideology--not the New Deal, of course, but supply-side Reaganomics.  Take the approach of Republicans in the House of Representatives toward replacing the Affordable Care Act,   Actually, they're only planning to partially replace it.  How?  By replacing much of the Federal subsides for buying health insurance with--wait for it--tax cuts.  And not just any tax cuts, but cuts that disproportionately benefit the donor base of the Republican party.  In other words, the people most likely to be hurt by this change (if it ever happens) are Trump voters.

And Trump is fully on-board with this, despite the fact that he's promised universal health care in the past.  Then again, he promised not to cut Social Security, and look at what's happening to that promise.  Out the window.  On moral grounds, no less.  Don't count on those factory jobs to come back, Rust Belters.

So, to complete the comparison all the way into the next Presidential election, all the Democrats would need to do is to find themselves another Reagan.  Somebody at the upper end of the age spectrum, who had spent his whole life devoted to ideological causes.  Someone not closely identified with the establishment of the party, but who has millions of fiercely loyal partisans within it. Someone who had run against the party nominee in the previous election, and came up just short of a historic upset in the nomination process.  Someone whose presence hung over that nominee, even at a triumphant nominating convention.

In other words, someone like ... gasp ... Bernie Sanders.

Amazing, isn't it?  But what's even more amazing is that, once again, the Democrats may be poised to blow it.

Whatever else you do, don't let them.