Sunday, February 26, 2017

Unfortunately For Conservatives (And For All Of Us), Character Really Does Matter

Yes, character matters.  And conservatives know all about it.

After all, if you are old enough to remember the Clinton years, you discovered that character mattered a lot to conservatives.  Or so they said.  They started saying it, in fact, in 1992, from the moment that Bill Clinton became a serious presidential candidate, and Clinton's recreational sex life became public knowledge and thus part of our political debate.  Still, since conservatives are a little squeamish on the subject of sex, they decided to transform the discussion of Clinton's extra-marital life info something a little bit loftier, and therefore suitable for a presidential campaign.  And so, the character issue was born.

Fast-forward a quarter of a century, and the character issue is alive again.  Only not in a way that is designed to please conservatives.  One of their own is in the White House and, though he could be charitably described as a character, he cannot honestly be said to possess it.  He is a trust-funded, bankrupt con artist who has no true position on anything, except as it may relate to his self-promotion.  You take his word at your peril.  Sadly, many good people have learned that lesson the hard way.  Now, together, we will all learn it, whether we want to are not.

So it should come as no surprise that conservatives, and their media allies that pride themselves on maintaining a bipartisan reputation (above all else), have found a way to, well, reposition the character issue.  Suddenly, it's no longer about the person being elected; its about the people doing the electing.  It's about the voters.  But not about all of the voters.  It's about "white working class" voters, and the neglect that has been heaped on them by "elitists" (translation:  liberals with more than a high-school degree).

Only it's the voters who have been heaping that abuse on themselves.  For the better part of 35 years, these same voters have been voting for the same conservative candidates, swallowing the same empty promises of pain-free solutions to everything in their lives, solutions that depended on the voters' willingness to hate people who weren't like them.  Last November, those voters proved that even at rock bottom, they were still willing to look up and believe in those empty promises--even from a messenger that was laughing at them behind their backs.

Where's the character in that?  Where's the character in voting for a man who spent months demeaning the humanity of every group under the sun but "white working class" voters?  I will go to my grave wondering why Trump's presidential campaign didn't go down in flames the minute the footage of him mocking a disabled reporter was made public.

The answer is simple.  There is no character in this at all.  In fact, there's a certain degree of slander in saying that Trump's support is rooted in the grievances of the white working class.  A large number of people who could arguably fit into that categorization didn't vote for Trump after all.

To put it another way, as this author puts it, the likelihood of someone voting for Trump is in an inverse relationship to the quality of that person's character.  Trump voters are still people who are looking for easy answers, still looking for empty promises that have no price tags, and don't care who gets hurt in the process of making and keeping those promises, as long as they get treated like it's not about all of us, just them.

Or, as this author put it:
There is a sickness in America’s political culture. It was brought about by systemic problems rooted in neoliberalism, the politics of economic austerity, a frayed and broken social contract, and an assault on the very notion of political community and civil society. The ascendance of Donald Trump is a symptom of these troubles, but not the cause.
Ultimately, however, Donald Trump’s voters made a moral decision. They chose to support a candidate who is a clear and present danger to American democracy and to the core values of our pluralistic, multicultural and cosmopolitan society. In the spirit of “personal responsibility,” these people must be held accountable for their decision.
And so, they must be accountable for the effect they have on others, especially children.  And Jews. And Christians who try to practice what they preach.  And all others they and their Fearless Leader step on in the pursuit of their naked self-interest.  And, when they blind themselves to reality in the process (see here and here)), they must be held accountable for that as well.

Character matters.  But character is much more than keeping one's zipper up.  Character matters in every moment in every hour of everyday any of our elected (and especially our un-elected) officials are in power, and have the opportunity to use that power.  Or misuse it.  It matters in every decision that is made or not made, about every issue that may have an impact on everyone.  I repeat: everyone. Not just the supporters of one person.  Everyone.

And character is reflected above all in fidelity to the truth, whether or not that truth is personally painful. Power in this country is not meant to be handed out for personal enrichment.  It is distributed as a public trust, to be used only on behalf of the public.

If we are ever to be a democracy once again, that's the type of character all of us need.  The voters, and those for whom they vote.  Hopefully, that's something that all of us can agree upon.  Soon.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Theater As A Force For Good

This article about the Ghostlight Project, an effort by members of the theater community across the country to band together and speak out about issues affecting both theater and the nation, and this one about the restoration of the Hudson Theater in New York are inspirations to me in the context of all three of my careers:  an attorney, an actor/aspiring producer, and a historic preservationist.

My lifelong interest in theater, for which I have my mother and her late sister (my aunt) to thank, has as much to do with theater as a force for social good as with theater as an artistic medium. Perhaps that partly reflects my father's influence, given his interest in politics.  At any rate, to me, a theater that has no consequences (good ones) for the culture around it is no theater at all. Fortunately, in spite of the fractured nature of American culture, our theater has had tremendous consequences for our culture, especially in the area of tolerance, whether it does with the aspirations of an African-American family ("A Raisin in the Sun") or young people dealing with their sexual orientation ("Falsettos").

I have often read critics who wished out loud for a National Theater such as the one Great Britain has.  Of course, Great Britain has was it has because it has a more unified culture.  But even as the culture of the UK breaks down and leads its people to turn inward, the role of the NT is currently a subject of heated debate.  Perhaps, in its own way, the Ghostlight Project is as close to a National Theater as the U.S. can get.

As for the Hudson, I rejoice in having yet another example of celebrating a building whose existence, design, and history of productions tells us so much about where we have been, as well as where we are going.  It's not an accident that historic preservation actually increases the value of adjacent properties, instead (as some might suspect) of having the opposite effect.

It's a miracle that, in a highly technological age, that theater survives at all; it's even a greater miracle that it is actually flourishing.  I know of no greater testimony to its value than that fact. May we continue to do all that we can to support it, so that it may flourish forever.

More Light In The Darkness

Forbes magazine (along with its Web site, www.forbes.com) is, to borrow a phrase I like to use a lot, nobody's idea of a bleeding-heart liberal publication.  In fact, there was a time when the magazine mocked Communist slogan-making by using the phrase "Capitalist Tool" as an advertising slogan. It may still do this, for all I know; I confess to not being a regular reader.

In any case, you can understand (and you may very well share the feeling) why I was shocked and pleased to come across this article.  Nothing about its contents surprises me in the least.  But its location inside a medium controlled by Forbes is utterly astonishing.  One might expect a Catholic newspaper or magazine questioning the infallibility of the Pope to be as likely.  In effect one of the two or three leading press organs that exist to promote the efficacy of capitalism as the best economic system for the largest number of people has declared capitalism to be dead.  Or, at least, to have gone on the record as saying that capitalism has a definite expiration date.

Even more remarkable is the fact that the article goes on to make the case not only for sustainable development, but for changes in the ownership structures of enterprises that would allow employees the opportunity to manage businesses.  I've been an advocate for decades of expanding the use of ESOPs and similar structures as a way of getting past the investor-versus-labor divide that has dominated economic life around the world for centuries.  And here it is, being advocated by a leading advocate of the interests of the investing class.

All I can say in response, Forbes, is:  from your pages to G-d's ears.  And from G-d's mouth thereafter to the ears of many others as well.

Admit It, Baltimore: We're Part Of A Megalopolis

As much pride as I have in my home town of Baltimore, I have always been frustrated by the determination with which it has traditionally isolated itself, economically and culturally, from the rest of the world.  Even within its borders, its is a collection of neighborhoods that are more like an archipelago than a single entity.  That lack of cohesiveness gives many of those neighborhoods a significant degree of strength.  But, at the same time, it isolates many of the weaker ones from avenues (pardon the pun) of help that would change their destiny for the better.

But, worst of all, it tries to isolate itself from its 40-miles-distant neighbor, Washington, D.C., a city that has proven the power of the federal government to transform an entire region into an economic powerhouse (sorry, "free-market" conservatives).  Despite this effort, the nation's capital has still had a positive spillover effect on the development of Baltimore's downtown commercial market, and also on the housing market in the city's southern neighborhoods near Interstate 95.  In fact, the spillover effect has reached the point at which the Monumental City is attracting more direct investment from south of its borders.  Here's an example of one major investor, one whose vision of the region's potential extends all the way to Richmond.  In fact, it could extend to Richmond in the south and perhaps even Harrisburg in the north.

How to get to there from here?  Well, one solution would be to extend the current light-rail line south so that it connects to the Green and Red lines of the Washington Metro, and then perhaps extend it at the northern end as well.  Maybe even across the Pennsylvania border to York, where a signification population of commuters to Baltimore live.  But, more than anything else, Baltimoreans need to embrace the idea that becoming part of a larger whole is the key toward a healthier, more prosperous, more enduring Baltimore.  There truly is no future in trying to go it on our own.

Light In The Darkness

This blog has had to become so much more relentlessly negative over the past three months, and especially the past four weeks, that it becomes even more necessary than it would otherwise be to report good news when you can find it.  So here are two good pieces of news on the subject of climate change.  First, a bold declaration by former Republican Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger of his belief in the existence of the problem, and of the urgent need to solve it. And second, a proposal by officials from the Nixon, Reagan, and Bush (both of them) Administrations to address the problem by way of a carbon tax--a solution formerly limited in its support to supposedly "die-hard lefties."

Schwarzenegger's support is important, even if for no other reason than the fact that he's a movie star as well as a politician, and any support he gives for an issue is that much more likely to flow across party lines.  Personally, if I were President, I would be happy to make him my Secretary of the Interior, but for his past treatment of women.

The support for a carbon tax from the likes of James Baker, Henry Paulson, and George Shultz, in some ways, is even more significant.  All three of them have managed to survive in the political swamp known as Washington, D.C., and know their way around the proverbial corridors of power. If, as I hope, they are serious about moving forward with their proposal, there may be a slim chance that, one day, the proposal could become a reality.

First, of course, we'll have to get rid of the self-promoting, bankrupted con artist who currently occupies the White House (when he isn't in Florida or running for re-election), and who thinks climate change is "bulls--t."  His word, not mine.  And that process can happen soon enough.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

"He Will Die In Jail"

You've got to say this much for the 45th President of the United States.  He's set a record, albeit not one anyone should be proud of holding.  He's reached Watergate-levels of impeachment in just four weeks of holding the office.  Of course, the emoluments problem guaranteed that he would hit that threshold the moment he took the oath of office.  But Donald Trump, a man who likes to build things that are gilded, has now gilded the lily of the argument against his serving out his term.

I am talking, of course, about the resignation of his national security advisor, Michael Flynn, in the wake of charges (now confirmed) that he communicated with Russian officials and withheld that information from Vice President Pence.  This, of course, begs a whole host of additional questions, and demands an investigation of Flynn's conduct in this matter, regardless of where that investigation may lead.  And it may very well lead to the door of the Oval Office.  It could very well beg Howard Baker's infamous Watergate question:  what did the President know, and when did he know it?

Keep in mind that this story follows in the wake of an election campaign in which credible questions were raised about Trump's business dealings--and, quite possibly, other dealings--with Russian officials and businesses, dealings that might have the effect of compromising his ability to fully represent American interests here and abroad.  Those questions were repeatedly shoved under the carpet by Trump, his campaign, his supporters and the GOP.  Unfortunately, those questions now form a lump in that carpet around which tiptoeing is neither possible nor advisable.

Further, keep in mind that this comes against a background in which Trump is under siege from the two segments of American government that, as a Republican, should be in his back pocket for support: the military, and the intelligence community.  Let's start with the military.  Specifically, let's start with the disastrous raid in Yemen, a failure in every conceivable sense, a human tragedy for those who lost the lives, and an expedition based on intelligence so incomplete that Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama (and G-d, how I miss him), decided against proceeding with the raid. But not Trump, a man who's accustomed to sacrificing the needs of others for the sake of his ego. And military men and women, whose lives rest on the sake of good information and selfless decision-making, are not fooled by bluster:  they don't like what they see, and they're telling it like it is.

And now, for the intelligence community (full disclosure:  I have a close relative who is a member of that community, about whom I can say no more).  They, too, pay a high price for the work that they do and the information that they obtain, and are in no position to see that work misused by a "leader" who refuses to safeguard that information and its sources in a way that protects this country and its people.  I'm referring, of course, to this.  Think about it for a moment:  the man who was, just a few months ago, up in arms about Hillary Clinton's e-mail server doesn't give a damn if he throws a party and classified documents are one of the main courses.

Is it any wonder, given this incident in particular, that the intelligence community, on whom all of us depend, has turned against Trump?  Is it any wonder that they want to "go nuclear," and ensure the prediction of one official that "[H]e will die in jail"?

It shouldn't be.  But this should make you wonder.  To paraphrase former Senator Bob Dole, where's the outrage?

There's plenty of it in the streets, at public meetings, and all over social media (and elsewhere on the Internet).  But what about Congress, and the media?  I am old enough to remember the zeal and seriousness with which both of them pursued Richard Nixon out of office and into the disgrace of history.  Any chance of that happening now?

Nope.

Congress, of course, is controlled by the President's party, which in turn has the backing of all sorts of political money.  That money has been spent on redistricting, on enacting voter restrictions, and on "fake news" designed to ensure that the GOP stays in charge of Congress indefinitely.  And the members of the current congressional majority feels quite sure that they will stay in charge.  All they have to do is produce more tax cuts, more deregulation, more burdening of the nation's needs on the shoulders of those who can barely bear them, so that those who bear almost nothing at all can bear even less.  Someone like Jason Chaffetz is a walking embodyment of all this.  Investigating Trump and his minions would be a direct threat to this happy little arrangement.

And the press, as we used to call them?  For that matter, the Fourth Estate, as we used to call them? When the press was regarding as a "fourth branch" of the federal government.  Forget about all of that, too.  They are a branch of nothing, except the Corporate Estate that owns Congress as well as them.  They are little more than a PR outlet for Wall Street.  Even in a direct confrontation with Trump, they are easily swept aside.

We may only have the courts, at this point.  The courts that rightly put a stop to Trump's proposed immigration ban (at least for now).  But we may not have them much longer, either.

Somehow, it's got to be up to the rest of us.  Somehow, we've got to find a way to make sure that the prophecy of the unnamed intelligence official comes true.  Trump's got to end up in jail, before America ends up only in the records of history.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Where Will The Reichstag Fire Be This Time?

If you're a student of 20th-century European history, you know that Adolf Hitler knew how to stage a crisis for his own advantage.  His underlings set fire to the building that housed the Reichstag, the parliament of the German Weimar Republic, and he then used the "crisis" he had created to invoke emergency powers that allowed him to transform himself from an elected official into the dictator that history is reluctantly forced to remember, if only to guard against the possibility that someone similar might re-emerge again.

Someone similar has, in fact, emerged again.  But not in Germany.  After decades of belief that "it can't happen here," there are unmistakable signs that it is, in fact, just beginning to happen here.

Paul Krugman knows it.

The Economist (not known for its knee-jerk liberalism) knows it.

The White House staff knows it.

The Federal bureaucracy knows it.

And, out in the so-called "heartland," in places such as Michigan and Kansas, people are agitating for it.

An end to democracy, and the beginning of a totalitarian state.

And, after all, it's not like we haven't seen this story before.  We've seen it during the early part of this century.

A president elected by the Electoral College only, winning neither a majority nor a plurality of the popular vote.  An administration that stumbles through the day-to-day business of the American people, finding time to reward its political patrons, but neither able or interested in anything else. A Commander-in-Chief who prefers vacations to reading intelligence briefings, especially ones that warn about an attack being planned by a member of a family with whom his family has had business dealings.  And then, seemingly out of nowhere, an attack on American soil that was then used to manipulate popular opinion against the political opposition--with the facts behind the attack dumped down the "memory hole" of history.

We will never know to what extent the 9/11 terrorist attacks were a purposeful "Reichstag fire," or a kind of accidental one that allowed George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to monopolize government power in an almost unprecedented manner.  But make no mistake:  there was nothing accidental about that monopolization.  Bush and Cheney, especially Cheney, saw an opportunity to turn American grief and anger into a political coalition that they thought could last forever.  The trouble is, of course, that empires don't last forever; conservatives, who are supposedly students of history, should know that.

But conservatism in the purely classic sense no longer exists in any meaningful way in our political system.  It has been replaced by a reactionary effort to recreate a mythical past, one in which white male Christians ruled, and everyone else was under their heels.  And no one is more devoted to the fulfillment of that effort than Donald John Trump, the trust-funded bankrupt who currently lives in the house with the fireplace in which are carved the words of John Adams:  "May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof."  Trump may not be the first President to disappoint Adams from his vantage point in Heaven, but he is no doubt our second President's greatest disappointment yet.

And with Steve Bannon in his self-appointed spot on the National Security Council, and Bannon's professed belief (desire?) for American involvement in another major war, it's hard not to wonder where our next Reichstag fire will be.

And how big it will be.

And how lasting its scars will be.

And how successful it will be in creating a Fourth Reich on American soil.

Then again, consider Trump's refusal thus far to provide disaster-aid funding to California, a state that may have cost him a popular-vote victory in the election.

Maybe the fire has already been it.  I pray that we are not too late to put it out.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Maybe Democrats Can Win Converts, After All

As I've stated previously, I'm frustrated by the inability of most conservatives to see that progressive ideas work, and benefit them.  Election after election in red states, voters reflexively vote over and over again for the party that's systematically shafting them.

But, perhaps, there's some small room for hope.

I don't know how representative the experience of the author of this article is.  It may be a small island of hope in a sea of despair.

But I would like to think it represents something better.

I would like to think that it means people are learning to think for themselves again, instead of getting all of their thinking from Fox News, talk radio, and Breitbart.

I would like to think that it means people are beginning to understand that it's easier to face the truth, even if it means admitting you were wrong, than it is to go on pretending that you're wrong.

And, most of all, I would like to think that it means that, in 2018 and later, that there will be an avalanche of "snowflakes," and an end to alternative facts.

I hope and pray that I'm right.

Why Giving All The Money To The Rich Is A Bad Idea

Actually, there are several reasons.

One is that they just put it into overseas tax shelters, meaning that the money is doing absolutely nothing except propping up the finances of playgrounds for the wealthy.  Another is that they put the money into buying elections, so that they can keep their current tax cuts and get even more of them.

But, I've just discovered another reason:  they waste the money on preparing for the Apocalypse, failing to realize that, in a true Apocalypse, their money won't last very long.  In an end-of-the-world scenario, scarcity would create price gouging beyond belief.  A simple bottle of water could cost millions.

And, in the meantime, people around the country do without the most basic resources.  For them, it's already a world in which a simple bottle of water might as well cost millions.

Can we somehow get past this idea that the rich need to be endlessly pampered at the expense of all of us?  At the rate things are going, we're being propelled toward the Apocalypse--and we don't have to be.

The Glass Ceiling May Yet Break, After All

After Hillary Clinton's defeat, the people I felt sorry for the most were all of the women who had invested so much time, energy and money into her historic campaign.  I worried that they might feel so discouraged (and understandably so) about the outcome that it would be a long time before we would witness any kind of sustained effort by women to run for office on a national scale.

Turns out my worrying was for nothing.  If anything, the presence of the misogynistic Trump in the White House seems to have motivated women to double down on their willingness to run for office.
Take a look.

Women represent a majority of the population.  If anything, the House and Senate should both have majorities of women.  And we should have had a female President long before Hillary's candidacy. For my part, I would like to think that I'm as enthusiastic a backer of woman's rights and issues as any man can be.  But, like other men, I can't have the same understanding of those rights and issues that women have.  We need them in public life--all the more so in the age of Trump.

Single-Payer Health Insurance: Is It Too Costly?

In a word, no.

In fact, as this article illustrates, it would cost less than the current system, through reduced administrative costs and the ability to negotiate prices on a nationwide level.  This is why single-payer exists and works well in every other industrialized nation in the world.  But not in the United States, the richest country in the world.

This is just another example of how conservatives smear a perfectly good idea by calling it "socialism."  The only socialistic aspect about it is that it would not allow private companies to profit off of the misery of others.  Health care is not like other private goods and services:  you never know exactly when you're going to need it.  That's why it makes the most sense to spread the costs of health care out among the entire population.  That, in fact, is the basic rationale behind all insurance schemes, even private ones.

Will we ever get past labels and just look at and discuss ideas?  Sometimes, I wonder.

Why Defined Contribution Retirement Plans Don't Work

This article discusses in detail the failure of so called 410(k) plans to ensure a comfortable retirement for their participants.  As it turns out, even the creator of them is unable to retire on his 401(k).  Bravo for life's little ironies (thank you, Garry Trudeau).

Defined contribution plans, like 401(k) plans, derive their name from the ability of participants to put in to the plan a specified dollar amount, tax-free, and then invest the money in the markets, which means that the ultimate amount of the plan balance at retirement depends strictly on market performance.  If the markets do well, you do well; if not, you may find retirement to be a long way off, if ever.

The only real solution?  Either increase Social Security benefits, or make it easier somehow for businesses to create defined benefit plans, which require the plan sponsor to invest enough money to fund specified benefits.  That was what retirement was like in the pre-Reagan era.  If only we could go back to that world!

Can You Talk About A Subject Without Talking About It?

That's apparently what's happening in America's breadbasket, where farmers, politicians and educators are trying to discuss the effects of climate change, and how to reverse them, without actually using the politically loaded phrase "climate change."  Even then, it isn't easy, as the article illustrates.  The closer you get in your language to sounding like an environmentalist, the more people turn you off.

It seems incredible that it's literally impossible to have an honest discussion about something that affects all of us, regardless of what part of the country we live in.  Have we become so full of hatred for each other that we can't even see when all of us are being mutually threatened?  If that's the case, there's no hope for us.

Maybe the efforts of the people described in this article will begin to reverse the trend.  But we're a long way from the trend being actually reversed.  And we may not have much time to wait for it to be reversed.  I hope I'm wrong.

It Really Is As Bad As You Think

There's nothing like information from an insider to tell you about what's really going on in Washington.  And, thanks to digital technology, it's never been easier to share than information.

With that in mind, I offer these excepts from a Twitter account set up by a mid-level staffer in the Trump White House.  It's tempting to react to the excepts as a spoof, and some of them almost read that way.  But it appears to be the real deal--that is, before the account disappeared.  One hopes that its author does not suffer a similar fate.

At any rate, if you've followed the exploits of Donald Trump for any significant length of time, is there anything in these tweets that's particularly surprising?  They expose him as vain, insecure, disrespectful of facts that get in the way of what he wants, and utterly undisciplined.  And yet, he's your President for the next four years.

G-d help us all.

A Grace Note

We now live in such a polarized political age that, when one can find an instance where folks on one side of the aisle can treat those on the other side with kindness and generosity, it's a small cause for celebration.  Which is why I was pleased to find this letter written by Barbara and Jenna Bush to Sasha and Malia Obama, on the occasion of the Obama's departure from the White House.

It's no doubt written with a special awareness of the burdens families carry when one of its members enters the Oval Office.  I've always found a lot of news coverage and satire of Presidential families to be very mean-spirited and utterly unnecessary, and, in any case, I avoid commenting on the personal lives of any family member other than the President.  Considering the level of meanness that Barbara and Jenna had to endure, both personally and toward their father, they deserve credit for their classiness here.

Then again, perhaps they related to the meanness that Sasha and Malia had to endure.  It would be better for all of us if we could think of each other more as people, and less as partisans.