No Time for Moderates

May 27, 2019

We’re suffering a worldwide attack on tolerance, the brotherhood and sisterhood of all peoples, and the principles of democracy and equality that make it possible to share the country and much of the globe in peace. The results, from Brexit to White Nationalism, the resurgence of Nazism in Europe, intolerance in India and China and ethnic warfare over the scraps of economic failure endanger us all. America, founded on tolerance, equality and democracy, should be leading the world out of this dangerous morass instead of smoothing the path to hell.

Commentators have long seen and feared the separation of national politics from the needs of the great mass of working people. Both national parties partook of that separation. Republicans revere Reagan but he crippled the unions, the organizations of working men and women. And claiming that government is the problem, not the solution, Reagan crippled efforts to address their problems. Democrats followed national economic trends without paying enough attention to the dislocations among working people. That combination made white working people feel left out, instead of uniting us in pursuit of a better world for everybody.

That’s recent history. Much further back, Alexis de Tocqueville, famous French nobleman, toured the U.S. in the 1830s and had the genius to see far into this country’s future. Tocqueville told us that democracy required widespread economic well-being.  The very first paragraph of the U.S. Constitution talks about the “general welfare” but many poo-poo it as merely precatory language, not authorizing government to take care of the people. Those who poo-poo that language think the Constitution is merely about freedom from government rather than the creation of a government capable of providing for the people. Their misreading of history is perverse and dangerous.

Seymour Martin Lipset, one of the twentieth century’s great political scientists, pointed to the world-wide connection between democracy and economic welfare. Germany, which had been a great economic power, lost its illustrious and democratic Weimar Constitution after going through economic hell between the world wars.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt told America that he was saving capitalism by protecting the great mass of Americans from the ways capitalism went awry. The big shots of industry couldn’t understand that their behavior wasn’t sacrosanct. They couldn’t understand that capitalism too has to operate by standards of ethics and principles of sharing. Roosevelt was the architect of American economic success for the next half century precisely because he put in place the rules by which it could operate for the benefit of the entire country, not merely the captains of industry and finance. We have forgotten and dishonored Roosevelt’s legacy of making government serve the people. He rescued this country from the Great Depression, “promote[d] the general Welfare,” as the Constitution provided, and set the country on a sound economic keel, a legacy that would honor any leader.  Fools now sneeze at his accomplishment so they can promote something new – poverty for all.

There’ve been plenty of warnings. Now we have a chance. It’s not enough to beat Trump. We need a victory for the principle that everyone counts and everyone needs to be protected. It doesn’t matter whether it’s called “socialism” or something else. The idea that it’s a bad idea to take care of each other has got to go – permanently – and all the conservative nonsense about the damage of helping each other. Either we care for each other or we will suffer a war of all against all regardless of what you call it – fascism, communism, totalitarianism – the results won’t be good for anyone except the oligarchs.

Forget “moderate” Democrats. If “radical” describes the philosophy of taking care of each other, we need it NOW. Bless all the people with the decency and humanity to care about their neighbors, fellow citizens and fellow human beings. The blessed are those who care.

– This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 28, 2019.

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The “Caravan”

November 13, 2018

Only Trump could turn a line of destitute and terrified people walking thousands of miles in hopes of finding safety in the America that all admired until recently, into a caravan of desperados bent on breaking laws, robbing, stealing and raping Americans.

Actually that’s wrong – the last time I know of was when Gen. Douglas MacArthur ran the bonus marchers off the mall in Washington, D.C. The bonus marchers were veterans of World War I, trying to survive the Great Depression. They came to Washington to petition their government to give them their promised World War I bonuses a little early, since they were desperate and destitute. Disobeying orders, MacArthur ran them off. MacArthur disobeyed four presidents until Truman finally fired him for insisting on widening the Korean War into China.

But the Bonus marchers and the Caravan both remind me more of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath – farmers who lost their lands to the banks after drought, the dust bowl and the Great Depression made it impossible to farm or earn a living in those farming communities. They joined a sad and sorry march from Oklahoma to California. They were farmers, not thieves or rapists. But they were vilifield as beggars. Oakies, originally meaning from Oklahoma, became an epithet. To the loss of their income, the loss of their farms, often the loss of their families, they now added the loss even of human empathy. Cold and hungry, the migrants gathered in shantytowns they called Hoovervilles, named for the president in office when the Great Depression began. They lit fires in steel drums to keep warm. I wish Steinbeck had written a sequel. He described great suffering and often death. Yet some percent of them survived and eventually melded into the population of California.

I thought we had outgrown demonizing the homeless and destitute, but not Donald Trump.

I thought we had outgrown running off the homeless and destitute like vermin, but not Donald Trump.

I thought we had learned that the problems of massive unemployment are not the workers’ making, but not Donald Trump.

I thought we had learned that farmers who’d lost their lands, shopkeepers, factory workers and miners who lost their jobs, were decent people suffering from forces beyond their control, but not Donald Trump.

Come back John Steinbeck and remind us all of our humanity.

Come back Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and show us how to care for our fellow human beings and build a better world out of love and compassion.

Come back America and show a large heart to each other and to the cold and desperate trying to reach the safety of our shores.

We can do it. There is no economic reason why we can’t. We could get to work rebuilding our infrastructure and make plenty of work for everyone. This is America. Si se puede; yes, we can and be stronger for it.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 13, 2018.

 

 


Images of America

March 6, 2018

When the Metropolitan Opera came on with Madame Butterfly recently, I began to puzzle about why the opera is so strongly anti-American. In Butterfly, an American naval lieutenant trifles with the heart of a young Japanese woman ending with her ritual suicide, leaving their baby to him and his new American wife.

It turns out that the story originated with a French officer about his own experiences but Puccini, who wrote the opera, saw a rewritten version, the version that became the basis of the magnificent and tragic love story he was to immortalize in music.

My students never like to be confronted with dates but dates are telling. The original version of Madame Butterfly was finished and performed in 1904. That was shortly after the end of what we call the Spanish-American war, the war that left us with Puerto Rico and, until we gave them independence, the Philippines.

America has come to think of itself as Franklin Delano Roosevelt left it, decent and triumphant in the cause of freedom and democracy. The symbols of our battle were drawn by Norman Rockwell – freedom of speech and religion, freedom from want and fear. It was a war for self-preservation – we had been attacked at Pearl Harbor. It was also a moral crusade, for democracy, freedom and the welfare of mankind. Soon after the war, President Truman and Secretary of State George Marshall sprang to the aid of refugees and impoverished people all over Europe with aid and redevelopment. America was a beacon of hope and decency for the world.

But more recently our military involvement in the Middle East and Asia has forced us to look back at our behavior, particularly in the Philippines. After World War II, some Philippinos told me they often thought of the U.S. like the cavalry in a western movie, massed on a ridge ready to save them from disaster. That may be a fair portrayal of our role there in World War II. But our part in the Spanish-American War is much less fondly remembered, in this country as well as abroad. American troops there pioneered methods of torture that we used later in Iraq. America’s great humorist, Mark Twain, wrote a searing short story about our part in the Spanish-American war – and, understanding how hard it would be for Americans to face that reality, dictated that it could not be published in his lifetime. During the war in Vietnam, we drove over to Mark Twain’s home town in Missouri and found that his War Prayer was his best selling work in the book store, but in the Mark Twain museum, The War Prayer was not to be found – it was still too upsetting for the townspeople.

The Founders of our country liked to refer to what they called the “genius of the people.” But the American people have stood for very different things at different times. Maybe it’s just that different people had more power or maybe it’s that the same people are driven by different motives. The Founders had a different thought – there’s evil in all of us.

But the wages of moral behavior are significant. The America that came off World War II leading the defense and reconstruction of the free world is not automatically the America that is closing itself off from the destinies of everyone we choose not to care about. And the international repercussions will be significant.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 6, 2018.


Polarizing America

January 31, 2017

I’d like to give my spleen a break for a week and talk about some of the dynamics that are polarizing  America, that neither side can solve because the problem is structural. Law has contributed with crucial changes regarding political parties, the media, the draft and residential segregation (which Brown did not prevent). I’d love to hear good suggestions for countering the polarizing effects of those legal changes.[i]

Primaries originally broke up state monopoly parties. We’ve long known that primary elections push candidates apart to appeal to their parties’ most committed voters. After 1968 the primary system became the exclusive method for nominating presidents, pushing the parties further apart.

In broadcasting, three networks controlled radio and television until Congress changed copyright rules, allowing cable television expansion to over a hundred channels, and niche broadcasting to separate audiences. The courts and Federal Communications Commission also killed the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to present a balanced presentation of controversial issues of public importance. Then Congress made it almost impossible to hold any internet company responsible for even the most outrageous falsehoods published on their systems. Those media law changes made it unnecessary to pay any attention to opposing views. Plus, instead of limiting damages for defamation, as Justice Marshall suggested, the Court gave media much more complete protection.

At the Federal Housing Administration, officials long refused to insure mortgages to African-Americans, regardless of income. That prevented African-Americans from joining the march to the suburbs, drove disinvestment in their existing neighborhoods, and pushed us apart.

The end of the draft has been huge. The military had drafted people without regard to wealth, class, or geography. President Teddy Roosevelt said “the military tent, where all sleep side-by-side, will rank next to the public school among the great agents of democratization.”[2] And indeed the soldiers came home with lifelong buddies from all over America. Arguments about the Vietnam war ended the draft and led to the so-called volunteer army, which doesn’t reach the same cross-section of America. That changed our attitudes toward each other, and how polarized we’ve become.

There were good reasons for the changes to the nominating system, the media, and the draft but the combined price has been to polarize us. Polarization matters. It blocks our ability to listen to each other, even to care about each other. And if we can’t care, the very notion of public welfare, what’s good for all of us, seems like self-pleading.

The market can’t pick up the slack; it fails in many ways. Worse, for market ideologues, democracy, the major counterforce to the market, seems illegitimate. In other words, the stakes are huge – the legacy of our Revolution, our Constitution, and our collective welfare. Somehow, we have to break down polarization, and restore what used to bring us together or find substitutes – for public schools, military service, media that reached across aisles, and integrated housing and communities.

I doubt the cat can be put back in the bag, especially in this polarized environment, but I’d love to hear good suggestions.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 31, 2017. For a more extensive treatment, see my Unfit For Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics at 153-67 (NYU Press 2016) or Law and the Polarization of American Politics, 25 Georgia State L. Rev. 339 (2008).

[1] For a more extensive treatment, see my Unfit For Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics at 153-67 (NYU Press 2016) or Law and the Polarization of American Politics, 25 Georgia State L. Rev. 339 (2008).

[2] Quoted in John Whiteclay Chambers, II, Conscripting for Colossus: The Progressive Era and the Origin of the Modern Military Draft in the United States in World War I, in The Military in America from the Colonial Era to the Present 302 (Free Press, Peter Karsten, ed., rev. ed. 1986).


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.


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