Sunday, May 14, 2017

An Unexpected Insight From Margaret Atwood

"1984" is a brilliantly written book, but a horribly depressing one.  The totalitarian world it creates for the reader is as realistic--and conceivable--as it is brutal and merciless.  Reading it is not a pleasant experience, but it has been a necessary one almost from the moment it was published, and never more so than now.  It is possible, however, to read it and appreciate it as a literary experience. This is not only because of how well George Orwell uses language to make his nightmare feel real, and to make you care about what happens in it, but because language itself is part of the subject of the book.

Newspeak, the language of the book's totalitarian state designed to suppress dissent, emerged from Orwell's concern as a journalist about the misuse of language by politicians to manipulate or conceal the truth rather than advance it.  He took the subject of language seriously enough that, at the end of the book's main story, he included an essay as an appendix entitled "The Principles of Newspeak," in which he describes in detail the structure of the language and how it operated to limit the potential range of thought.

I have read "1984," including the appendix, several times, and somehow never noticed a rather interesting fact:  the appendix is written in the past tense.  That is to say, it is written in such a way that it describes a process of language creation that had already begun, and was planned for completion in the future, but may or may not have been actually completed.

Margaret Atwood, the author of another dystopian book, "The Handmaid's Tale," recently said that she interpreted this use of the past tense to mean that the "author" of the appendix was writing from some farther point in the future, perhaps at a time when the world as described in "1984" had collapsed.  In her view, the author of the appendix was not meant to be Orwell himself, but some survivor of his nightmare world who was living at a time when life was better, and people were trying to make sense of what had happened previously and learn from it.  She added that this perspective had inspired the structure of "The Handmaid's Tale."

I would like to believe that her take on Orwell and "1984" are accurate.  It makes me think about the end of "The Hunger Games" trilogy, which also depicts a dystopian world that eventually ends up in a better place.  Perhaps hope is ultimately impossible to destroy, as long as there is a single human being capable of feeling it.  Even if the human being is a dystopian author.  Something to hang onto, as the world seems to spin faster and faster toward chaos.

The Closest Thing To A Time Machine?

Virtual reality--the technology that allows you to not simply see or read about an event or experience but to actually immerse yourself in it (visually, at least for the moment)--has become the next frontier in media technology.  Its applications are going exponentially.  Initially, the market for VR seemed primarily to be video gamers who wanted a more "real" experience in game-playing.  It has begun to expand beyond that, however.  News organizations such as the New York Times have used it to create VR feature stories, designed to give their readers/viewers more of a you-are-there experience.  And now, it appears that VR can be helpful to the elderly, in enabling them to relive parts of their lives or experience places and events from the past or present, whether new to them or not.  Here is an article about how this has already begun to happen.

For me, as a preservationist, it's not difficult to see how this could be useful.  I currently serve on the board of the Theater Historical Society of America, an organization devoted to archiving various artifacts from historical theaters across the country, as well as publishing stories about those theaters--many of them demolished, but many of them still standing.  Among our archives are photos, and even architectural drawings, of many of these theaters.  In addition, many of our members have first-hand memories of the events that took place in these buildings---not only the shows themselves, but much of what happened behind the scenes backstage and in the offices, as well as in the audiences.

What if THS were to take much of this information and use it to re-create the experiences of being in many of the theaters that are long gone?  What if it were possible to use VR to allow people to "experience" what it was like to be at the opening night of a particular show, or even at the opening night of a particular theater?  What if that experience was expanded further, to allow a viewer to go outside of the theater and immerse himself or herself in the city outside the theater?  The possibilities are quite possibly limitless.

There's always the danger with technology like this that the users will eventually too "cut off" from the actual world around them to live meaningful lives for themselves or others.  That's something to consider, and perhaps reason to temper one's optimism about VR or any similar technology.  But it's certainly not a reason to shun it.  VR has the potential to be the closest thing we will have to a time machine for a very long time.  It has enormous potential as a tool for entertainment, for journalism, and for preservationists who may be able to "save" old buildings electronically even if they cannot do so in reality.  A digital Williamsburg could be a very useful thing.

Perhaps we at THS could help lead the way in making it happen.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

What Is Modern Conservatism REALLY All About?

Last week, in talking about Donald Trump (which his Presidency obliges me to do, whether any of us like it or not), I included a link to a Washington Post column by George Will, in which Will verbally dismembers Trump as only Will can do.  It's worth a second opportunity for you to look at it, so I will provide one here.

What is at the heart of this dismemberment, in this case, is by no means purely an ad hominem attack. After all, Will has long been a defender of the principles of small-government conservatism, as expressed in our Constitution and experienced in our subsequent history.  Trump is a Republican President and, in the post-Reagan tradition of Republican Presidents, supposed to be committed to those principles. But Trump, as was the case in his pre-Presidential life, is committed to only one principle: maximizing his personal popularity.  It is, to illustrate via one example, why he lurches from endorsing universal health care to celebrating the passage of a health care bill that is only universal in the pain it would spread throughout the country.

So, then, Will's lamentations about The Donald can and should be read as lamenting the institutional failure of the Republican Party and, for that matter, the larger conservative movement, to produce a presidential candidate with the intelligence and persuasive skills to advocate small-government conservatism in a consistent, issues-focused manner.  Putting it another way, Will's laments the loss of a conservative politics of ideas.

Even someone as liberal as me can respect this.  I was brought up to understand that conservatism was, at its best, about a respect for the lessons of history, and the need to proceed with caution in considering changes in the status quo.  In and of themselves, those are not bad ideas, nor are they incompatible with policies implemented by a liberal government.  History as a discipline, in part, to discourage us from going in directions that have been tried and failed--or worse, from directions that have been tried solely for the purpose of advancing the interests of a few at the expense of everyone else.  And caution need not be a complete inhibitor of new ideas. Rather, it can be a way of guarding against the effects of the law of unintended consequences.

Will therefore rightly castigates Trump for not being knowledgeable about history or cautious in his actions.  What Will fails to accept, however, is that Trump is the modern conservative movement in its last degenerate phase, one where caution and knowledge have given way to almost religious adherence to fiscal and social policies that have repeatedly failed, and, finally, a lust for power that cannot even conceive of admitting mistakes, let alone tolerate an actual admission.

We should all be willing to admit by now that balancing a budget, like losing weight, demands some level of sacrifice, with the democratic commitment to sharing it as much as possible.  We should be willing to admit that we have only one planet, and that science demands that we take steps to take care of it.  We should be willing to face the fact that you can't have an economy without an environment, and that businesses won't take care of the environment without government coercion. Above all, we should be willing to admit that there is no point in calling ourselves a nation if we are not willing to take care of each other.  These are the lessons of history.  Caution is required in any attempt to depart from those lessons.

But 40 years of worshiping Ronald Reagan and the sunny effect he had on people's emotions has seemingly dragged us in a direction away from all of those lessons--and, worse yet, from the ability to heed them.  We seem to be no longer able to think about anything with any kind of clarity or consistency.  This, perhaps, is why we have conservative Christians who want to defund Planned Parenthood even as they cheerfully endorse aid to Israel, where abortion is practically a civil right. Never mind that the services provided by organizations by Planned Parenthood make abortions less likely.  Never mind that abortion bans make abortions more lethal, not less likely.  It is impossible to argue with these people, as it is with their secular counterparts about other issues, because thinking is no longer part of the conservative tradition.  It is, quite literally, all about belief in failed policies--and woe to anyone who dares say otherwise.

A nation that substitutes belief for thought is a nation that can no longer effectively govern itself, because each of its citizens lack the most fundamental of tools for self-governance:  an open, working mind.  Such citizens can only be herded by those strong-willed enough to take charge, regardless of what kind of charge they want to take.  And that is why modern conservatism is about one thing, and one thing only.  Power.  The need to possess it.  The need to keep it.  The need to use it.  And the need to attack, in every conceivable way, those who might take it away.

And that is the reason why, for the foreseeable future, we are stuck with talking about Donald Trump. Conservatives need to learn how to think again.  They need to learn to embrace conservatism in the very best sense, and learn from history's lessons.  History contains many examples of Trump-like characters.  It also has lessons about how to deal with them.

Perhaps, however, what they need to do first is to stop demonizing those who disagree with them, and to understand that someone like Trump is a threat to all of us.  A lust for power unwed to any redeeming desire or impulse is no respecter of persons.  Perhaps organizing around that thought is where the thinking can begin.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

As For Those Of Us Who Are Already Working ...

... this article from the Times brings up another subject:  the abusive use by employers of non-compete agreements, even for workers in relatively unskilled jobs.

Traditionally, NCAs (as they are colloquially called in the business and legal worlds) have been used to protect businesses against the possibility that an employee who possesses an unusual and valuable set of skills, or perhaps has control over significant market resources or customers, might leave the company, taking valuable insider knowledge with him or her, and launch a competing business, leaving the original employer at a significant disadvantage for taking the employee into its trust. These contracts are generally limited by state law with regard to the types of restrictions that a company can place on a departing employee.  They cannot be indefinite with regard to the limits on time, geography, or even the nature of work to be performed.  The intention behind most of these limits is to strike a balance between an employee's freedom to seek work and an employer's right to protect its own economic interests.

And, in any case, the intention has traditionally been to limit the use of NCAs to those employees who are uniquely valuable to an enterprise, and not to employees with highly fungible skills. Employees in the latter category are often the ones with the least amount of job security, and who have the hardest time finding a job in the first place because of their sheer numbers in relation to the opportunities available to them.  I still remember my shock at finding out from a client that he had to sign an NCA for making sandwiches--sandwiches!--at a well-known fast-food chain.  I will not name the chain in question, but I will say this:  if you've eaten any of their sandwiches, you would wonder why they needed to be protected by an NCA (to say absolutely nothing about the prices).

Fortunately, there appears to be some legislative relief on the way, mostly at the state level at this point.  But it's worth considering the current abuse of NCAs in the context of other efforts over the past 40 years to restrict the rights of workers, while enhancing the rights of the investing class. Somewhere along the way, the idea that free enterprise was meant to play out on a level field got lost, and a large number of employers decided that it was OK to tilt it, so long as it was tilted in their direction.

Again, assuming that there will be elections next year, Democrats and other progressives should make restrictions on the use of NCAs a key component of a major proposal on behalf of workers' rights, one that addresses unions, overtime, leave and a whole host of other considerations that once were considered part of the American Way, and that we've somehow allowed ourselves to be convinced are unaffordable.  The truth runs in the other direction:  it's the absence of these considerations that is unaffordable.

On The Other Hand, If There Are Elections ...

... then one central issue, along with fighting the Republican attacks on health care by advancing single-payer health insurance for all, should and must be to reform so-called "welfare reform."

The 1996 joint attack on the poor by then-President Clinton and then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, intended by Clinton to ensure his re-election (which it did) and guarantee that he would not be impeached (which it didn't), has now provided twenty years of evidence to support its success or failure.  That evidence, sadly, supports the latter.  "Welfare reform" has proved to be an unmitigated disaster, one that helped pull the consumption floor out from underneath the economy in the George W. Bush years and deepened the despair of the Great Recession.  Equally bad is the power it gave to state governments to afflict the afflicted and pour money into helping themselves, rather than helping their most vulnerable citizens.

Under the 1996 law, guaranteed payments to families with dependent children were replaced with block grants of money to state governments, to be used as those government saw fit, complete with lifetime financial "caps" on direct cash payments to citizens and work requirements.  During the relatively flush Clinton years, few people noticed the hardships that these changes began to create. The Bush years, and the Republican-dominated later years of the Obama Administration, changed all of that, as newly-elected GOP governors and legislators competed with each other to impose the harshest possible cash and time limits on the poor, regardless of whether there was work available for them on not.

And, very often, the money went instead into programs allegedly designed to help the poor, but actually designed to help conservative constituencies such as the Christian right (e.g., abstinence programs.  Now, in an all-Republican age, the states are beginning an assault on Medicaid, something that Clinton pride himself on saving during the lead-up to the passage of "welfare reform."  They are beginning to attach work requirements to it, even though doing so was never the intention of either Medicaid or "welfare reform."

But buried in this list of letters to the editor of the New York Times, all critical of the welfare status quo is a valuable suggestion for Democrats looking to both energize their base and woo Trump voters: a return to a Carter-era proposal to guarantee work for all.  Perhaps the so-called party of working men and women could find a way to get behind this in 2018.  If the Republicans give them
--and the rest of us--a chance.

What If There Are No Elections Next Year?

Does that title disturb you?  I hope it disturbs a lot of people.  But I'm not so sure of that, for a number of reasons.  Two of them were highlighted by events this week.

First, there was the passage in the House of Representatives of the Republicans' repeal-and-replace legislation for the Affordable Care Act.  The word Republicans should be emphasized in reading that sentence, because not a single Democrat supported it--and, for that matter, not a few Republicans voted against it as well.  This bill, which would eliminate health care coverage for millions of Americans and destabilize one-sixth of the American economy, was thrown together in a matter of days, and approved not only without an estimate of its cost but without even having been read by the people who voted for it.

The current majority of the House, contrary to what the conservative press would have you believe, is not composed of citizen legislators intent on serving the interests of their constituents, and working on behalf of all Americans.  It is a cabal of crooks, intent upon enriching themselves at the expense of everyone else.  And why not?   They've been bought and paid for by the people who control 50% of the money in our society, and who have also supported largely successful efforts to restrict voting so as to ensure their continued political dominance.

And, on top of that, there are their friends in other countries.  Which brings us to the other major story worth discussing in this context:  the apparent last-minute attempt by foreign (probably Russian) hackers to disrupt the French presidential election, an election in which the far-right Marine Le Pen had previously appeared to be losing badly to Emmanuel Macron, her more moderate opponent.  Does this sound vaguely familiar?  Perhaps, like something that happened last fall here in the United States?

In such a world, what chance does democracy have?  In such a world, in which the entire political process seems to be front-loaded in favor of one side, who needs elections anyway?

Good question.  And don't think that the side in whose favor the front-loading works hasn't been asking it.

In the wake of the Republican House "triumph" this past week, I have read any number of articles about how energized progressive voters and candidates are now, and how this in turn may lead to the Democrats flipping one or even both houses of Congress in next year's mid-term elections. Leaving aside the point that the distance between then and now is an eternity in retail politics, its worth pointing out that conservatives read those articles as well.  They also know that mid-term elections, as a broad general rule, generate far lower levels of turnout than their counterparts in presidential election years.

In fact, they may be able to count on depressed turnout from here on out, just because the seeming inevitability of their control leads people to see their right to vote as a meaningless, what's-the-use relic of a bygone era.  In the case of the French presidential election, even before the hacking reports emerged, there were already reports that turnout might be low, even among the angriest voters.

So, the right-wing thinking might go, what if we created a pretext for cancelling elections?  I have already written about the possibility of manufacturing a Reichstag-fire level event (or a 9/11 event, if you prefer), one that would distract the majority of people and allow a small, conservative group of oligarchs to build the police-state of their dreams.  What if it happened in such a way that this group could propose cancelling (or, more likely "delaying") the mid-term elections, so that the "emergency" could be resolved and power being given over to the people "best" capable of confronting it?  That is to say, members of the group making the proposal in the first place.

And what if, after that, the "emergency" slowly just became the new status quo?  And most of the people accepted it, because they were either too stressed or too lazy to do anything else?

Does all of this sound shocking to you?  Is it really more shocking that a trust-funded, four-time-bankrupted con artist becoming President?  A President who has already been denounced in the loftiest of terms by a political columnist not noted for his flaming liberalism?  A columnist who, in fact, has joined a number of other observers in questioning the sanity of said President?  A President who has already been predicted, by a Yale historian, to attempt a coup at some future point?

It shouldn't be.

It's painfully clear that, in the present crisis, the only ones capable of standing up for the rule of law, and protecting the rest of us in the process, are the lawyers.  There's a reason that Dick the Butcher in Shakespeare's "Henry VI, Part II" suggests killing them should be the first step in taking power. They are the last guardians of justice when all else has failed.  And, at this point, all else is pretty close to failing.  They've already turned back Trump on a number of fronts, especially with regard to his anti-immigration efforts.  It appears that they are ready to do so with regard to his obscene assault on Americans' health care.

Let us hope, and pray, that they are successful.  After them, quite likely, comes the deluge.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

A New Architectural Language?

One of the reasons I like older buildings so much is their ornamentation.  Prior to the twentieth century, and even well into it, buildings were constructed with the naive but sincere intention that they would last for decades, perhaps even centuries.  In part because of this view, this led artists and architects to design and construct buildings that were intended to be works of art, as well as functional places for human activity.  This of course meant that their interior and exterior surfaces were covered with all sorts of features that served absolutely no function at all, except to give pleasure to those who saw them and, perhaps, to make the building stand out in the crowd--or, to put it another way, to turn it into a "landmark," something that could be used as a reference point for guiding oneself or someone else around a city or town.

By the middle of the twentieth century, however, technology had begun to crowd out decoration as an important consideration for architects and their clients.  Buildings needed to be designed in such a way that their technical systems could easily be repaired or replaced.  And, if that meant completely tearing down a building that had been put up only a decade or two before, then the building in question got torn down.  This need for technical innovation, combined with the depletion of many traditional resources for building construction, led to the destruction of many beautifully designed buildings and their replacement with glass-and-steel boxes that could easily be adapted and even repurposed for changing technology and tastes.  In this context, "landmark" became something of a dirty word to many real estate developers.  It meant that a particular building they wanted to level could not be taken down, or even substantially modified, because that building had acquired a constituency beyond its ownership and/or occupiers--a constituency that could bend the political will to save a popular older building that might otherwise disappear.

I cheerfully admit to being part of that constituency.  And I cheerfully admit that I enjoy ornamentation in construction, and lament the fact that so much of modern construction is so bland in an uninspiring and almost fascist kind of way.  I've often wondered whether it would be possible for modern artists and architects to develop a kind of ornamental language that would, in its basic concepts, be more suitable for today's tastes than (to use one example) the gargoyles of Gothic cathedrals.  I had just begun, in fact, to despair over whether such a development could occur.

And then, I saw this.

Okay, maybe Emojis aren't your thing.  But maybe this is, instead.  One way or another, maybe there's a place for ornamentation in the modern world after all.  I hope so!

Still Fighting The Good Fight For All Of Us

To be alive in the 1960s and 1970s was, among many other things, to bear witness to the importance of freedom of the press.  Not as a slogan.  Not even as words in the Bill of Rights.  But as a living, breathing reality, one that allowed the American news media to justifiably claim the title of the Fourth Estate, a branch of government that served as perhaps the most effective check on the other three.  Whether it was dissecting an overseas war that destroyed the national consensus on the use of American power, or revealing to the world the power of protesters to change the course of an entire nation, or exposing the corruption of an Administration too busy serving itself to remember how to serve the American people, the press was there.

And Dan Rather of CBS was foremost among them.  So much so, in fact, that Richard Nixon, the head of the aforementioned Administration, regarded him as a personal enemy, and not just as a man who was trying to get answers to questions that troubled a good many people.  So much so, in fact, that when Rather later took over the anchor duties for the CBS News from Walter Cronkite (himself no shrinking violet in facing down the truth and those who would hide it), the VRWC made a point of throwing every resource at its disposal into the effort to destroy him.

Personally, I think that Rather cracked a little under the strain of that effort.  Any human being would be likely to do so, at least to some extent.  Some of the more bizarre episodes from his anchor days, such as his interview with then-Vice President Bush, reflect that strain.  That's not to say that he doesn't bear responsibility for those moments.  He does.  That is no less true of the controversy that ultimately drove him from the anchor desk:  his reliance on false documents in telling a story about the National Guard service of George W. Bush.  If anything, his stature as a journalist at that point required him to accept responsibility and even discipline for those failures. But that doesn't negate the fact that he was a target, one that was pounded relentless until the wingers got their proverbial pound of flesh.

But Rather's failures should not be allowed to obscure who he basically is:  a man with a passionate love for his country and an equally passionate love for telling it the truth.  We've never needed him more than now, and it's not surprising that, in these days of darkness, he is being re-discovered by a generation that grew up on journalism as a series of corporate press releases.

Go get 'em, Dan.  And when the pressure builds up, just remember that a new generation is behind you.

A Tale Of Two Parties

To continue with the Dickens referenced employed in my title, it was the worst of times, and it was the far-worse-than-than-that times, even if you are a member of the 1%.  For whether you realize it or not, your country, and your entire international system, are in the gravest of jeopardy.

I've chosen this as my starting point after I found myself reflecting back to the presidential campaign of 2004, a sour experience that nevertheless makes the more recent one seem like Athenian democracy in its heyday by comparison.  You may or may not recall that the Democratic nominee, John Kerry, selected fellow U.S. Senator John Edwards as his running mate, based in part on a desire to balance the ticket geographically (North and South), and also to incorporate Edwards' economic message from the primaries.  In that message, Edwards liked to tell a tale of "two Americas, one rich and one poor."  Of course, concerns about the post-9/11 world outweighed Edwards' efforts to build his primary campaign and, later, the Kerry/Edwards campaign around the crisis in economic equality, and George W. Bush was re-elected (or elected, as I prefer to say it) to the White House.  It probably didn't help Edwards as an avatar of economic equality, of course, that he was a wealthy plaintiff's attorney with a somewhat colorful personal life.

Still, Edwards had a point, and that point has only grown sharper in the Donald Trump era, where a real estate tycoon compromised from almost every direction and with no practical experience in government nevertheless managed, on his first try, to "win" the highest office in the land, thanks to the Electoral College, the Russians, the FBI Director, and who knows how many other electoral tricks the GOP had up its sleeve.  Trump's place in the Oval Office does more to reflect the current dominance of wealth over people than does perhaps any other single fact, alternative or otherwise.

In any other country, in any other period in history, this state of affairs and its attendant instability would led to some sort of upheaval in the status quo.  That upheaval might be violent, and might not directly lead to a new and better status quo.  But currently, there is no center, moral or otherwise to our society, and something would have to give.  And yet, we seem to just be "chugging along," grimly determined to grind it out, while kidding ourselves that we can get through this disaster of a government without any lasting harm to our society, as well as to our system of government.


Because the tale that we should be considering is not one of two cities, or two nations, or two economic classes.  It is, primarily, a tale of two parties.

In the one case, we have a party that was born and organized in the mid-nineteen century around the twin poles of national unity and personal freedom.  As the century wore on, this devolved into a business-first perspective that, when combined with anti-Communism in the twentieth century, began to devolve into a cult, one that became obsessed with evaluating the patriotism of everyone. Finally, in a desperate attempt to stay alive, it embraced a new set of twin poles, white supremacy and fundamentalist religion, that turned its pro-business slant into a new capitalist creed that could broker no compromises with what it saw as "the welfare state," even when the advocates of that state were advancing causes designed to save everyone (e.g., fighting climate change).  Today, that party is willing to do whatever it takes to unilaterally impose its will on everyone, turning the tools of democracy against the people to ensure perpetual control of the system.  Democracy in name, in short, but nowhere in fact.

And what about the other party?  The one that takes its name from democracy.

That party's first president was Andrew Jackson, a man who, his shortcomings notwithstanding, knew how to fight.  And fight it did, from Jackson all the way into the twentieth century under Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman.  And then, suddenly, somehow it stopped.  Whether it was purely out of concern of being seen as "too socialistic," or whether in fact it mirrored society in becoming so relativistic that it saw nothing as truly being worth a fight (unless their constituents took to the streets themselves), that party suddenly lost not only its voice, but its backbone.  And, along with those things, and with a few intervening exceptions, it started to lose elections.  A lot of them.  Today, nowhere in this country do they have control of any of the levers of power, except for a small handful of states.  Its constituents live in terror--a terror that is justified by the anger and contempt that the other side feels for it, as well as an awareness of the means that the other side is prepared to use.

One party heartless, the other faint of heart.  One party with a confused head, the other with an empty one.  One party that can do nothing but fight, the other too scared to think of the word.  One party with voters who will cheerfully vote for someone to enslave them, the other with voters that permit the enslaving, because they'd rather wait for the kind of "perfect" candidate who never shows up.

In this sorry state of affairs, what nation needs to try and take us prisoner?  We may already be dead.

Please prove me wrong, America, and soon.  Either take over the Democratic Party and give it a soul and a pair of fists, or start a new party with both of those things.  I think the world, even the atheists, might be praying that we do one or the other.

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.