Universalism vs. the What-About-Mes

May 10, 2016

This primary season has made plain Americans’ dissatisfaction with American politics – dissatisfaction because someone else seems to be getting all the goodies and concern. The right wing thinks the poor are the government’s favorites. The left wing sees its wages and taxes mostly benefitting the super wealthy. Both Sanders and Trump mined the political backlash from special interest politics. Trump’s apparent nomination increases the urgency for both parties to respond to this problem.

And for anyone who wants to argue that impoverished or minority Americans are being short changed, one runs a minefield of envy, and the “what-about-mes.” The same weighs down discussion of the advantages of international trade agreements. If we don’t all share, the biggest issue is me. Similarly, for too many people the environment never seems to be about themselves but someone else, people on islands, lowlands, the next generations, but not themselves. That makes all our problems tougher to deal with.

When he wanted to establish a program for the elderly and the injured, the genius of President Franklin Roosevelt was to make it seem universal. Social security insurance applied to all kinds of people and most kinds of jobs.[1] We pay into the system long before we know whether and how much we’ll need. Many get social security who would be excluded by any need based program. But that’s the point. There is no stigma to social security. FDR did it as an insurance program; most of us contribute and collect. Roosevelt wanted to make it simple – you did your social security business at the post office. And when some politicians wanted to tamper with it for ideological reasons, they found that social security was a third rail of politics. FDR had hit that nail on the head.

Now, however, simple, universal programs like medical insurance have become a political football, and the very possibility of the government pursuing the general welfare is under attack from the not-with-my-money crowd. But because it is under attack, because we cannot count on government even to pull us out of a recession that would involve spending tax dollars, no matter how good the investment, the very possibility of economic changes are much more threatening than they should be.

Investment in infrastructure should be an investment in the general welfare, full of benefits for everyone, putting people to work building it, making jobs and businesses easier to reach, and creating benefits for all of us, from clean water and more reliable utilities to better education and internet services. The best way to protect people from unemployment is to provide jobs that provide benefits for the public. Infrastructure can pay dividends, in jobs and services that make everyone better off, and that only government can build.

Unfortunately politicians prefer big showy projects, dramatic new bridges and buildings rather than maintenance, repair and cost effective options. They prefer projects targeted for their contributors, Or they prefer to get on their soapboxes and try to get us to tear down the very government that made this country a great one. The cost of political behavior that breeds distrust of American government is enormous. Good government, self-government was the signal contribution of America to the world and we are allowing our political infrastructure to crumble along with the water, utility, transportation and electrical infrastructure.

It’s not just who we tax; it’s also what we do. Government matters; it does things for the public that no one else will take care of. We need good government, fair government, government for all of us, but government – strong, effective government – and the confidence that comes from doing it right.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 10, 2016.

[1] On the original exclusions, see Larry DeWitt, The Decision to Exclude Agricultural and Domestic Workers from the 1935 Social Security Act, Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 70, No. 4, 2010, https://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/ssb/v70n4/v70n4p49.html, but he is less convincing regarding motivation. For summaries of current exemptions, see Intuit Inc. (U.S.) at https://turbotax.intuit.com/tax-tools/tax-tips/General-Tax-Tips/Who-Is-Exempt-from-Paying-Social-Security-Tax-/INF19965.html or http://www.investopedia.com/ask/answers/013015/who-exempt-paying-social-security-taxes.asp.


Professor Paul Murray’s class on the civil rights movement

May 9, 2016

Paul Murray went South as part of the Civil Rights Movement. For many years he has taught a course on the Civil Rights Movement at Sienna College and taken high school and college students on trips to see places made famous by the struggle for freedom and equality.

Professor Murray, Paul to many of us, is retiring soon. This year’s class on the Civil Rights Movement has been his last. For the last session, he held a discussion of whether the Civil Rights Movement had succeeded or failed. Just three students thought it had been a success. Paul asked why. Students brought up discriminatory policing, the impact of putting so many Blacks in prison for behavior that would not get whites prosecuted let alone incarcerated, and the extent to which Blacks still go to schools segregated by zoning and other boundaries, understaffed with fellow students who mirror their own economic backgrounds and skin color.

Gradually Paul got the students to drill deeper –hadn’t some things changed for the better, where and for whom? Elementary schools changed less than colleges and universities. Housing patterns are more segregated after the emergence of white suburbs and wealth is still very skewed. For one student, her very existence depended on the Civil Rights Movement when the Supreme Court held states could no longer ban intermarriage of whites and Blacks.

My wife commented that the world is different from what it was when she grew up in the South or even when we moved into Albany in 1979. African-Americans do many things they couldn’t then. Out shopping and dining years ago we’d just see African-Americans working as busboys and janitors. Now we see them as waiters, hosts, and salespeople. We work alongside African-American professionals, lawyers, businessmen and faculty. And when we came to Albany the city was still geographically and politically divided by faith and national origin in a way that has long since passed.

Another woman commented that being white is actually a step forward for many whites in the room, who grew up knowing that our own groups were discriminated against. Somehow all those ethnic and religious differences no longer separated good, helpful, valuable people from anyone else, and we’re all much richer for it.

The Civil Rights Movement made a difference to all of us, Black and white. A law professor years ago wrote a book about the African-American contribution to the First Amendment.[1] Much of the improvement in Americans’ sense of brotherhood was also forged in the Civil Rights Movement.

But don’t count on it. We had an integrated federal bureaucracy for half a century after the Civil War until President Woodrow Wilson drove Blacks out of the civil service. We had integrated restaurants and theaters in the South before the Klan terrorized southern Blacks, taking advantage of Supreme Court decisions that what happens in the South is no business of Congress and federal prosecutors.[2] The Supreme Court in our own time has called a halt to integration, repeating its 19th century backsliding. The schools and criminal justice system are still failing Blacks.

I don’t know how long it will take. Visitors to Paul’s class had spent their lives working for justice and we all have to keep working for it. I want to believe that our work and social relationships will gradually drive racial justice in the same way they drove the integration of ethnic groups and the gay rights movement. It’s been harder and slower regarding race but we will get there, thanks to people like Professor Murray.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 3, 2016.

[1] Harry Kalven, The Negro and the First amendment (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 1966).

[2] C. Vann Woodward, The strange career of Jim Crow (New York: Oxford University Press, Commemorative ed., c2002) (1955).


The Outdated Economics of Conservative Ideologues

April 26, 2016

Some of you may have been following Shankar Vedantam on NPR or the discoveries of Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist on the Princeton faculty, and their demonstration of the irrational ways that people very naturally and ordinarily reach decisions. Indeed, for quite a long time it’s been apparent that rational decision making often demands too much of people. As Cornell’s Vicki Bogan said in a talk in Albany, the rational choice model of economics assumes that people:

  • Think like Albert Einstein
  • Can store as much memory as IBM’s Big Blue
  • Can exercise the will power of Mahatma Gandhi
  • … [and] make unbiased forecasts

Nobel Prizes have been awarded to psychologists and economists who have been studying human decision making, showing that people literally can’t do what conservative economic theory expects them to. The rational man doesn’t exist, and for that reason, markets often don’t protect us. For both businessmen and consumers, rational choice is often impossible; it’s just too hard. Sometimes things aren’t currently knowable. Sometimes they’re beyond the capacity of individuals, even if institutions can figure it out.

A trip to the grocery store helps make the point clear. Even though much of the information exists, I can’t know enough about all the ingredients of the goods I buy, and their impact on my body, and still take the time to do my work and have a life to live. I have to trust someone or something else. But consumer ignorance shapes what businessmen have to do to survive. Those who cater only to the most informed, cater to small markets and often go under.

One consequence is that the market doesn’t protect us. That’s why workers’ compensation was started many decades ago – workers couldn’t figure out the odds of injury and didn’t have the ability to protect themselves as cheaply and effectively as informed employers could. Government stepped in to move that burden of knowing and choosing from the employee to the employer.

Those are examples. The broader impact of what is now called behavioral economics is that the economic theory of market ideologues is thoroughly discredited nonsense. It doesn’t work. A couple of decades ago there was a big debate about the efficient market theory which claimed that the market had it right even though individuals could be wrong. But they couldn’t tell me whether the market had it right the day before or the day after the crash. In other words it was nonsense on stilts.

That’s one of the reasons the public, all of us, have to get out of the glare of the outdated economics coming from conservative ideologues. It’s one of the reasons why it has been so important that Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have moved the Democratic Party to the left. That shift also clears the way for Hilary Clinton to return to the roots of the modern Democratic Party in the Great Depression, in Roosevelt’s New Deal, in being a party with heart.

Hilary and Bernie both have a lot to offer, but just as big a key to progress will be the Senate and the House of Representatives, which have blocked Obama’s efforts to push this country toward better, more caring solutions at every turn.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 26, 2016.


In the Wake of Atrocities is Moderation Possible

November 28, 2015

In the wake of murders like those in Paris, is it possible to talk about moderation? The impulse to kill is very strong. I know I’d feel it if it came close. And yet we know that many innocent men are put to death. And if an innocent person is executed, the killer, or killers, are still alive. And kangaroo courts or lynch law threaten everyone. The circle of murder can widen, as it did with the infamous Hatfields and McCoys. I’ve taught a descendent of the McCoys, actually a lovely young woman in West Virginia. But a murder turned into a war and decimated the families. Was that worth it – all the innocent lives. We are taught that two wrongs don’t make a right, but in the aftermath, do we have the strength to see that?

It was very difficult to oppose the war in Iraq. We know now it was a mistake, and one that did a great deal of damage, in the lives of innocent men and women, in destabilizing the region, in creating the opportunity for Daesh to thrive.

I’m terrified of the political pressure behind the hawks now. So-called collateral damage can cause a reaction that engulfs the world in flames. Our own reactions to the Paris bombing demonstrate the fact. Yet Daesh clearly hopes that we in turn will cause so much collateral damage that it will pull all the Muslims that oppose Daesh now into the fray to defend an Islam that seems under attack.

We should have learned by now that what matters in war is not what we think is justified, but what our actions produce. Lincoln understood that, calculating carefully how and when he used the slavery issue in the Civil War. Vietnam should have brought home to us that what people think matters. But the atrocities of some both in the Administration and carrying the flag in Iraq showed that the lessons of Vietnam didn’t reach everyone. Iraq continues to be a problem for us not only because it destabilized the region but also because the crude things that some people did in the name of America continue to inflame many people about us. It’s not about appeasement; it’s about pacification. It’s about keeping conflicts as small as possible. Every conflict isn’t about Hitler in 1938; sometimes the right analogy is to Versailles at the end of World War I when the victorious allies imposed punishments that radicalized the German people. Notice how differently the end of World War II came out, when the allies reaffirmed the rule of law and found constructive ways forward, not only for us but for the German people, not only the Marshall Plan but also the European Union which gave Germany both an important role and an important stake in the future of a united Europe.

That’s hard. That takes real statesmanship. Vice-president Biden’s comments Saturday impressed me. He started by identifying Daesh’s goals and then pointed out that we should not play into their hands by widening the war against Islam. Think of Daesh as holding a match and trying to start a fire or a detonator and trying to set off an explosion. Daesh by itself is infuriating. One commentator compared them to pirates. But without sparking that wider war, they cannot defeat us or any significant country. In this conflict, we have to respond with our heads, not our hearts. Like forest fighters, we have to contain the blaze before we can put it out. President Obama’s talk about containment was absolutely right. Thank heaven that we have a president who uses his head. The question is whether the American people can rise to the challenge of supporting a policy that’s based on intelligent calculations instead of emotional displays of power.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 24, 2015.


An NRA Foreign Policy

November 3, 2015

 

Think about the NRA position that guns don’t kill people, people do, and therefore that we should protect the rights of gun ownership. Just think about the contribution that the NRA could make to the discussion of foreign affairs. The NRA position reveals that it is a big mistake to control arms trafficking. They’re spot on – we should just arm everyone, friend and foe, all the contending parties in Syria and Iraq. Al-Qaeda? Their guns don’t kill, they do. No problem. ISIS? No problem. But we can learn from the NRA that the biggest mistake is the nuclear deal with Iran! After all, if everyone had nukes, no one would use them. Peace on earth. Goodwill toward men and women. Solved that one. Thanks to the NRA.

There is the problem of identifying perpetrators. NRA’s got that solved too – tracing weapons is not allowed because it might lead to regulation and prohibition which would undermine everything they stand for. No, we’ll just have to guess who bombed whom. But the perpetrators will be scared because we might guess right among the hundreds of nations and many more terrorist groups. Peace reigns.

But the real threat is from folks who don’t have any apparent weapons – they’re hiding it. So just like Trayvon Martin and all those other souls who got what the NRA reserved for them, we have to be ready to shoot first and ask questions later. There is a chance that someone might have evil intent, especially if they don’t look right. Kill, kill, kill. Oh scratch that, Arlo used that phrase in Alice’s restaurant. Let’s say, historicize them. Remember Dick Cheney’s idea about Iraq – there was a chance they’d turn out bad, so let’s just make a mess of their place first, and let the whirlwind blow where it may – even if it whirls back on us.

Try that in Libya and Syria. Let everyone have guns, mortars, grenades and landmines. We can imagine them blowing each other’s brains out until they have depopulated the area and removed any threat to us. They already blame the U.S. anyway. Of course the weapons will end up in the hands of terrorists who will use them to fleece the people and turn the profits against new targets in America or among Americans. But then the American arms industry will really get going and we can have all-out war – now that’s a heroic future.

Now just think of the environmental advantages. China has ended its one-child policy. What to do? Nukes. How many nukes would it take to lower the earth’s population to about 3 billion? Of course radiation from that many nukes might lower the population to zero. But we could end the release of carbon and methane into the atmosphere. That way we could gain some control over global warming. The place might actually be livable again for a new race of people who emerge from the sea and the apes into homo sapiens in another two billion years. Think of that, the NRA could save the planet.

Oh my heavens where is my tongue. In my cheek? Or is it deadly accurate?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 3, 2015.

 


Good soldiers know how to play chess

October 20, 2015

I’d like to start by stating my pride in WAMC and admiration of you, the listeners and members, who not only raised funds to keep the station on the air but also raised funds during the pledge break for the food bank, to help refugees and to retire pollution from the environment. That’s a lot to be proud of.

Turning to the Middle East, Russia wants to beef up Assad in Syria. And Putin seems to have confronted us with a fait accompli as it conducts bombing raids. No one wants war with Russia. So what to do?

Lots of people have their eyes focused on the Middle East, on Syria and its immediate neighbors. I think that reveals inexperience. Foreign affairs is a chess game. Chess was invented to train the mind for combat.

Now I’m no champion chess player. Oh I like to brag that I once beat someone who beat Bobby Fisher, which is true, but my friend hadn’t played in years and I have no idea how old Fisher was when my friend beat him. But just the same I do understand some things about chess. And one of them is that if the other guy attacks one of my pieces where it’s hard to defend, I can look for ways to take advantage of the position somewhere else on the board. Sometimes that forces my opponent to release his grip while dealing with my counter threat, or provide me with a counter-balancing advantage. Chess is often described as a game of position, but rarely is it all about one square or even one piece.

So I’m wondering what candidates you might have for places to put pressure on Russia? Ukraine anyone? Or posting troops in Poland? And how about recalculating the effects of Putin’s moves? The EU has been falling apart but a resurgent Russian bear may help put the EU back together. Arab anger has been directed against home grown Sunni regimes and against the U.S., but a resurgent Russian bear may put them in a war with ISIS and could inflame Muslims within Russia. Conservatives want America to be a player in world politics. But being a player is hardly a purpose. I’m more focused on the consequences.

People who only keep their eyes on one spot may be experts on that spot, or just naïve. But real foreign policy is global. Russia is not invincible. Putin is not a magician. The games he has been playing have answers. Keep cool.

But don’t look for lots of loud talk back. Real warriors don’t scream their intentions. Intentions become known after the fact. That’s what I expect from Obama or any president who is competent in foreign policy and not a big gasbag. As Teddy Roosevelt once said, we need to speak softly and carry a big stick. But it’s also important to remember that big sticks aren’t best wielded in frontal attacks – Picket’s charge lost at Gettysburg. Grant, by contrast, was happy to lay siege at Vicksburg and Richmond, and the soldiers under Sherman rarely fired a shot through a long campaign across Tennessee and then Georgia – except when Jefferson Davis replaced one of his best generals and his replacement immediately attacked the portion of Sherman’s Army he had left behind at Chattanooga. The Confederate Army was then promply defeated by that half of Sherman’s Army.

Good soldiers know how to play chess.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 20, 2015.


Regression to the Mean

August 18, 2015

Social scientists have a phrase, “regression to the mean.” What they mean is that the law of averages eventually fells families, companies or countries that are doing better than average, and eventually lift those doing much worse than the average. Now for all of us who like to say the United States is the best in the world, there is a prospect to consider.

We could just get fatalistic; it’s going to happen so what can we do about it. But of course we didn’t succeed by fatalism. Americans escaped, trekked, traveled, by rickety sailboats and steerage and every other way imaginable to get here and then they cleared the wilderness and conquered the continent and then took on the world. No fatalism about that.

They didn’t stare at each other saying we can’t do or build this or that; they joined together or got the government to help. Until the fatalists took over. Reagan said government is the problem. Strange remark, from a man who either should have known better or did, because when he took over the U.S. Government was actually remaking the world, our world. Perhaps you didn’t know that the internet was developed by DARPA as a national security project to make up for a strategic weakness of the old fashioned telephone system. Or that the transistors that run everything you use were developed as part of a government war effort. There isn’t much that you and I touch that weren’t connected in some way to the government space effort.

I could tell that story for every American generation. Government that is devoted to the welfare of the people, began here. The banking system, the transportation system repeatedly rebuilt as new technology developed, schools and the university system, the list of government projects for us is endless – until we stopped trusting each other and our own government.

So how do we stay strong, healthy, and successful? Some think we do it by fighting everyone. They must have grown up in a very tough neighborhood. Those who crunch the numbers figured out a long time ago that arms are what economists call a deadweight loss. Sometimes you really need them but they contribute zero to the economy except for the research. And like the barroom brawler, everyone’s gunning for the top gun.

We got where we are because of our economy. You can look at the economic numbers and see when Germany got ahead of England and France and then when the U.S. surpassed Germany. It’s all in the numbers. Ever since that other fatalist, George Bush said “read my lips; no new taxes,” Americans have imagined that progress was free. But we got where we are because government did the things needed to facilitate what the rest of us could do, travel, save, study, communicate, ship, research and on and on.

But now America feels so poor that it can’t repair its infrastructure, can’t fix the cables, the water and sanitary systems, can’t fund its university system except on the backs of students who haven’t yet had a chance to earn a living. If America is truly that poor, it will regress to the mean.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 18, 2015.


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