I’m an Affirmative Action Baby

September 20, 2017

I went out for an early walk recently. One of the things I like about taking a walk is the way it clears the mind. This morning, the fog lifted and I realized with great clarity that I was an affirmative action baby. About a decade before I applied, Princeton had made the decision, not just to eliminate the quota that limited the number of Jews admitted, but to actively encourage Jews to come.

When my high school college advisor suggested I apply to Princeton I was surprised. Princeton was not on my radar. But all the top students at Midwood wanted to go to Harvard, so I figured it was worth a try. I will never forget the day my parents drove me to campus for an interview. I expected to be grilled on whether I was good enough. The admissions office was on Cannon Green, cattycorner from Nassau Hall where the 1783 Treaty of Peace ending the Revolutionary War was signed. I don’t remember the man’s name, but I think he was an assistant Dean. And the whole interview was about trying to convince me to come.

I walked out and told my parents, in a tone that must have revealed both my joy and surprise, that they want me to come. Is it ever great to feel wanted. After that, there was never any question in my mind where I was going. I remember trying to conceal my sense of joy from fellow students at Midwood High – I didn’t want to be taken as bragging. And by the way, Yale Law School treated me much the same way four years later. This was not the education I expected. But I would have had to be dumb to turn it down.

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone to challenge my credentials because Princeton decided to encourage Jews to apply and come. I think it was a good bargain for everyone. As a group we were hungry for knowledge, opportunity and a chance to make the world better. And Princeton designed its program so that we students got to know our professors. Some of them invited us to their homes; some of us invited them to dinner with our friends.

Only one African-American graduated with our class. So I was proud of the school when it made the same decision to bring African-Americans to campus and then did it again with women. That’s quite a transformation between about 1944 and 1969. And it didn’t hurt a bit. Princeton is still at the top of everybody’s chart of the best schools to go to 55 years after yours truly graduated.

When I got to law school, I really got to experience and appreciate the value of diversity. Students came from literally all over the world to study with a couple of my teachers. I learned a great deal. Some of it was comic, like the student who wanted to work for Pakistan in order to promote the independence of Kashmir, directly contrary to Pakistani policy. One of my fellow students nearly burned my stomach with Indian spices. And I was terrified to introduce my dates to him because they all thought he was gorgeous. But they all enriched my life, my understanding and my appreciation of different peoples.

So yes, I’m an affirmative action baby. I’m not the least bit embarrassed about it. I hope I’ve justified their confidence in me – I’ve certainly spent my life trying.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 19, 2017.

 

 

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Capitalism gone wrong: Too many left behind in our divisive economy

September 19, 2017

My latest piece for The Hill discusses the set of unacceptable choices we’ve been stuck with: thinking only of national economic growth and ignoring the local fallout, maintaining industries that do national damage for the sake of local workers, leaving the workers to fend for themselves when industry departs their communities, or moving able workers to better jobs but leaving the rest in dying towns. Each of those choices is both morally and politically unacceptable. Liberals must find more compassionate solutions.

 


The Value of Democracy

September 12, 2017

Driven by the Tea Party, Republicans gave us a Congress that hasn’t been able to get much done. Saying less government is better, they take credit for getting nothing done, and leave immigration, tax policy, and health care to fester. It took the Democrats to make a deal with Trump to open the spigot even on hurricane relief.

Republican scorched earth policy is scariest for the lesson we take from it. For some of us the lesson is partisan – the other party must be defeated, fast. But for some Americans the lesson is that democracy doesn’t work, isn’t worth standing up for, honoring and protecting.

Many Americans have seen nothing but gridlock. Unlike the ways the parties worked from the 30s through the 80s, we’ve been dominated by gridlock since the mid-90s, especially when Republicans controlled Congress and Democrats were in the White House. Newt Gingrich and then the Tea Party made gridlock both their goal and tactic – if government can’t get anything done, then there is less government, never mind all the things for which we depend on government.

Republicans literally shut the government down under Clinton, only to discover that the American people didn’t like it because, from fixing potholes to carrying the mail, from sending out Social Security checks to keeping the skies safe to fly, government does lots of things we depend on.

By the mathematical logic of a majority of a majority, a minority in Congress could rule the Republican caucus and that caucus could stop everything so long as they agreed to stick together. So that minority of Congress gives us gridlock. We often talk about minority rights. But we are experiencing something else, not democracy, but it’s opposite, rule by minorities.

Elsewhere, dissatisfaction with democracy paves the way for dictatorship, in places like Syria, Iraq, and much of the Middle East and Eastern Europe. What replaces democracy is not some kinder, gentler, godly leader but kleptocracy, the rule of thieves, taking as much as possible from everyone to fatten their own pockets. Want to start a business, give the tyrant a cut. Want to export or import, the tyrant gets a cut. Courts aren’t in the business of dispensing justice; they’re in the business of looking at who is higher in the hierarchy. That’s why the flow of refugees isn’t from democracy to tyranny, but from dictatorships to freedom and democracy.

Democracy has a key secret. We can argue about who was wrong about Vietnam, Iraq, Obamacare, whatever – the people make painful mistakes – but a democratic people have the ability to vote the bastards out. Generally that gets the people better results than passing the reigns to dictators who can twist everything for their own benefit while sneezing at the people’s misfortune.

Democracy is not to be sneezed at. It is the singular American contribution to this world and we must protect it from foreign powers and political bosses who would control the people by gerrymandering, manipulating the census, keeping people from the polls or not counting their votes, We must protect it from fraud, from lying to the public, and from autocrats who claim they can fix everything if we’d just let them do whatever they want, autocrats who would have us end up like Venezuela under Maduro, Turkey under Erdogan, or like Hungary, Syria or Iraq and from so-called leaders who claim the rules don’t apply to them. We must protect it for ourselves.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 12, 2017.

 


Book Picks for heart and mind

September 8, 2017

I’d like to recommend a pair of books, the first partly for very personal reasons. I worked with Lew Steel, who wrote The Butler’s Child, for four months at the legal office of the NAACP between graduating from law school and heading for Peace Corps training. I know many of the people he writes about and have enormous admiration for all of them. We knew that Lew had money though I didn’t know it came from a family connection to one of the Warner Brothers. We followed different career paths but not different goals. So for me his story is very personal. It’s a beautifully written book about the Civil Rights struggle. Bless Lew both for the memories and for carrying on the struggle.

The other by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alistair Smith is called The Dictators’ Handbook and is the best explanation I’ve seen of what is going wrong in Washington. I met Bruce through a mutual friend but don’t know him well – this is all about admiration for his work and their ability to write a very readable and widely recognized book that beautifully explains the different incentives and behavior of autocrats and democrats. Written several years before Trump, the Donald is reflected on every page. Well worth reading.

Steve


Taking care of each other

September 5, 2017

Americans have been celebrating the reaction to Hurricane Harvey as an example of Americans taking care of each other. There is much to celebrate. But we have also wrestled for centuries with the problem of taking care of each other – the out of work, the working poor and others struggling to stay afloat.

An economic reversal in the lives of many of us is just temporary. But it does permanent damage when it unravels peoples’ lives, leaves them with debts that spiral out of control so that they cannot hope to pay, or leaves them homeless, in broken families, or housed in barred cells. When people have little, events that would be a minor inconvenience for most of us can drop them over the cliff, unable to climb back. As the Founders recognized, all of us can expect some of our offspring to be poor. So what are the options?

Welfare has been cut back but some pieces of a social safety net remain, mostly funded by the federal government. One reason they are funded nationally is because some local governments don’t want to do anything about the problems of poverty. Another reason is that the problems fall unevenly on local governments. The process of creating suburbs and new communities is a process of seceding from the places where people have problems and therefore avoiding any responsibility under our laws about local government. By shifting the obligations upward to the feds we all share those problems at least to some degree.

We could provide jobs. Instead of just giving things and money out, we could take advantage of the time, labor and skills of people who are otherwise out of work, to get some useful things done. But the city can’t save the money that goes into the social safety net because that money isn’t city money. Albany’s Mayor Sheehan pointed that out at a house party before she was first elected. Fair point. But turning welfare money over to localities would invite them to divert the cash. Some form of cooperative federalism might be better for everyone.

Public services for everyone are also an option. We have created many sorts of services that all of us have rights to. Clean water fit to drink is a lot cheaper for everyone than buying it in bottles – provided that government isn’t asleep at the switch and doesn’t let the water supply fill with lead and other poisons. Sewage systems make everyone better off than a crazy quilt of individual efforts to deal with garbage, their own and their neighbors. And it saves a lot of money both because of economies of scale and because sewage can breed disease for all of us. Roads, bridges, sidewalks, other transportation amenities, libraries, postal services and regulated public utilities like phone and electrical service make life better for everyone. And all of them make life cheaper which is especially important for the impoverished.

In other words, making some things available for all of is good for us all and are also ways of helping the least among us. That used to be true of the health care system until we privatized it, demolished the many county, municipal and not-for-profit hospitals, only to try to restore some of the benefits of a public health system with Obamacare.

Republicans call measures like that socialism. I just call it smart, efficient and decent – Americans taking care of each other.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 5, 2017.


God and Texas

August 29, 2017

I mentioned to Ian a couple of weeks ago, as I was preparing to take a brief vacation, that I thought I had enough commentary ready for a couple of months. Ian just smiled and said it might depend on what happened. He didn’t mention a biblical flood in Texas.

There are many ways that we each address what is going on in the world. One of those is through the lens of religion. So is there a religious perspective on the flood in Texas? Of course. One could just build an ark and pray but really the religious perspective is much deeper and more important. God has set up the mechanisms that have turned human abuse of the earth’s environment into global climate change. Floods are part of the punishment for our carelessness with our natural heritage.

Notice that there is nothing in a religious perspective which contradicts a scientific one. Many scientists, religious themselves, describe their own work as trying to understand God’s work. Whether you or they think about the consequences of carbon and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere through a religious lens or not, the results are the same. The world gets warmer and one of the consequences are storms of biblical proportions.

Biblical? A body of water the size of Lake Michigan now covers a part of Texas and the storm is far from over, still bringing waters from the Gulf and dumping them on Texas. That’s biblical. Lake Michigan is huge, over three hundred miles long and more than a hundred miles wide. Lake Michigan reaches a depth of nearly a thousand feet – I hope that doesn’t happen in Texas but parts of Texas have already had more than four feet of rain fall on them in just a couple of days and the rains still fall.

This is just one of many storms and floods that have inundated parts of the country from New York to Texas. We have a president that pulled us out of a worldwide climate agreement and scoffs at climate change. And yes it is a matter of personal as well as political responsibility. We can limit the damage by our personal behavior. And our elected leaders, can limit the damage by facing and dealing with the ways that America contributes to the changes in the environment, and the ways that America could lead and support worldwide efforts to limit the damage. Anything less merits the wrath of God.

For those who do not think of the world through a religious lens, you need only think of your families, parents, brothers, sisters, children and grandchildren. This world is on a course to become a much tougher place for all of us. The burning of carbon based fuels that are causing climate change, are also causing changes in the oceans, killing the reefs that are the basis of the oceanic food chain, killing much of the sea life that gives many of us nourishment and fishermen their livelihoods. The same process is enlarging the deserts, killing forests, and ultimately threatening the oxygen supply that we depend on for life itself. The same process is spreading disease and spawning new pathogens that will overwhelm our bodies and our medical systems.

This is murder on a global scale. And yes, people are responsible, elected politicians are responsible, and people in or out of office who willfully ignore reality and believe climate deniers’ drivel are responsible. It is our moral and religious responsibility to stop it.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 28, 2019.


Is Trump responsible for violent rallies? Law says probably not.

August 29, 2017

The Hill asked me to analyze the likelihood that the president could be held legally responsible for the violence at demonstrations. For my analysis click here. As the saga of Jones v. Clinton and the subsequent impeachment made clear, high profile cases can have unpredictable results.


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