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This afternoon Angela Ahrendts, Senior Vice President of Retail at Apple Inc., said of Apple stores, “we don’t call them stores anymore, we call then town squares, because they’re gathering places.”
Ahrendts' comment could simply be written off as hubristic marketing-speak, but to me it's an unwittingly sad comment about how, in the current age, a luxury goods story can and does serve as a rough proxy for a public square and how, concurrently, civic society continues to be degraded.
While a small number of very rich people have always been able to keep themselves separate and apart from the masses, a larger and larger number of people are using money, technology and education to insulate themselves from the sort of everyday life all citizens once lived. Elite status, VIP sections, priority lines, “Cadillac” healthcare plans, private schools and all manner of other luxuries available to the professional and technological classes create a situation in which a larger swath of the well-educated and at least moderately well-to-do have created what amounts to a separate class apart from the rest of the country. A class that carries with it insidious assumptions, conscious or otherwise, that the affluent and educated are demographically superior to the poor. Or, perhaps, that the affluent and educated are the only people who even exist.
While, admittedly, there has always been some semblance of a class system in this country, the instances in which people come together in commons spaces -- in train stations, post offices, hospitals, libraries, public schools, museums and retail spaces -- has decreased dramatically. What's more, there was once a time in this country where the class divisions we had were at denied and diminished out of either shame or idealism born of the notion that the United States is not a class-based society. Today that conceit has been disposed of almost entirely, with “success” being increasingly equated with one's ability to buy one’s way out of the public sphere altogether.
We live in isolated and increasingly homogenous and cloistered communities. We have made it so that those with access to the gifts of the technological age can do their shopping, their banking and their interaction with the government via electronic means without ever having to encounter the general public or, at the very least, the part of the general public unlike themselves. The increasing power of a small handful of technology companies is exacerbating this trend, turning even basic acts of life, such as buying groceries, into a class-based pursuit.
As a result of all of this, the public sphere of life has broken down in many important ways. We do not come together as a society across economic classes in anything approaching the way we did even as recently as the early 1980s, let alone the way we did in previous decades. This is bad for democracy and social health because, when we do not interact with the whole of society in meaningful ways, we are no longer truly stakeholders in the whole of society. We are, at best, voyeurs, intellectually lamenting that which has befallen our fellow man, yet not really being invested in it in any real sense. When you encounter those in different circumstances than yourself only virtually, you can simply click away. Or you can just choose not to click in the first place.
Which brings me back to Apple. The nearest Apple store to me is in a place called Easton Town Center. It's a mall, but one of those outdoor malls that apes a cityscape, built on what used to be farmland out by the freeway outerbelt. There are storefronts and parking meters and sidewalks and all of that, but it's all private property. While it's a fake city, it holds the sorts of community events -- Christmas caroling, arts fairs, outdoor performances and the like -- that once took place in my town's real public spaces. Except it's not truly a community event given that no one has much business being there unless one is shopping or dining out at one of the luxury goods stores on its premises, and that's obviously not for everyone. And, of course, since it's private property, they can kick out anyone they want to for basically any reason or for no reason whatsoever.
Which certainly puts Apple's claim that its stores, a great number of which are located in places like Easton, are "town squares" in a different light. A light that is sadly telling of what our society has come to in this day and age.
Happy Labor Day: America's most overlooked major holiday.
It's understandable why so many people view Labor Day as not much more than day off from work and an excuse to have a cookout. Generally speaking Labor Day is a reflective holiday, not a celebratory one, and if a holiday doesn't involve gifts, celebrations or specific, defined acts like putting flowers on a grave, people tend to have a hard time knowing what to do about it.
However it's also overlooked by political design. Indeed, the obliteration and demonization of the labor movement is one of the most successful political operations of the past 40 years.
The major components of this operation have been the wholesale scaling back of workers' rights, benefits and protections and the claiming of a greater and greater cut of revenues by ownership over the past several decades. Dealing with that remains the most pressing issue for workers going forward, obviously. It's worth noting, however, that obliterating the very history of the labor movement in the United States has been a key part of that as well.
Even most of those who stop for a moment to acknowledge Labor Day are likely unaware that its institution was something of a cynical, political act, taken by politicians and business owners in order to appease workers they had just murdered and brutalized. It was also established in September in order to separate it from the larger international workers' day of May 1. The holiday itself was something of an apology, but also a means of blunting the edge of the labor movement. Those who see workers as the enemy as opposed to a critical part of the American fabric are quite happy that most of us think of today as a day to fire up the grill and go to the pool as opposed to thinking about America's workers. They have made it a point to do that, in fact, and they have been wildly successful in doing so.
Not only does organized labor makes up a smaller portion of the workforce than it ever has, and not only do workers suffer worse conditions than they have in decades, but even pointing this out has come to be seen as somehow subversive. Even a great many of the people who do the working in this country have bought in to the notion — propagated by those who profit from labor — that unions are tools of the communists and giving any lip service to the rights of workers is a suspect and even un-American pursuit. Good, secure jobs with good pay and benefits have come to be seen as rare luxuries for which it is rude to ask, let alone expect. What's worse: many workers themselves have adopted the language of the rich and powerful in this regard, having been convinced that their need to hustle harder than they used to in order to make less in real dollars than they used to is somehow a good thing.
I'm not sure what to do about that, as it's a massive problem with many causes and calls for a host of actions in response to remedy it. But in the meantime, we should do whatever we can to at least commemorate and acknowledge a national holiday devoted to laborers in at least close to the same way in which we mothers on Mothers Day, fathers on Fathers Day, our loved ones on Valentine's Day, our veterans on Veterans Day and those who have died for our country on Memorial Day.
And make no mistake: workers have died for our country too. People die on the job every day and you likely cross a bridge, enter a building or drive on a road that was paid for, in part, by workers' lives every day. People have likewise died in the name of worker’s rights and in the name of keeping more people from dying on the job. Beyond all of that, labor built this country. The labor movement has saved lives that would have been lost and has elevated the standard of living of families. Odds are that, whether you accept it or not, labor and workers in your own family allowed you to get where you are now.
It's worth a day of remembrance, reverence and reflection, at the very least.
President Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio because he likes the cut of Arpaio's jib.
He pardoned him because he knows it'll play great with his base. He pardoned him because Arpaio was an early political supporter and because Trump rewards loyalty. He pardoned him because Arpaio provided Trump with a rough blueprint for demonizing Obama, immigrants and minorities as a means of achieving electoral victory. He pardoned him because he shares Arpaio's contempt for laws, courts and political and legal authority that belongs to anyone but himself.
Like anything else Trump does, it was done based on a gut feeling and a selfish desire. If there is any doubt about that, one need only look at the way Trump bypassed the customary pardon process which involves review by the Department of Justice. There was not a ton of thought and analysis put into this. It was a purely personal, purely political act.
In light of that, anyone trudging into the weeds to frame this as some complicated interplay between the branches of government, the nuances inherit in the separation of powers or any of that stuff is selling you a bill of goods. They're doing this either because they support Trump or because, even if they do not, they support people who would have to do something about Trump if the pardon comes to be seen broadly as the disgraceful act that it truly is. When you're a Republican -- even a #NeverTrump Republican -- the last thing you want is for the people you do support to have to spend any time or political capital opposing Trump, because that takes valuable time away from cutting taxes for the wealthy and hamstringing the government's ability to, you know, govern. It also makes them worry that they're committing religious heresy.
But really, it's a simple case. Arpaio and Trump share supporters and share enemies and at a time when Trump feels that he's under attack, he's going to do whatever he can to show strength, to prove he has allies and to rally whatever support he feels he can rally. And make no mistake, he'll rally a lot of people to his side with this pardon because he and his supporters will couch it in terms of "law and order" -- Arpaio was a sheriff after all! -- and people eat up appeals to law and order.
Unfortunately, the growing public conception of law and order is twisted and corrupt. Indeed, "Law and order" has quickly become synonymous with "police," and any effort to oversee and check the power of police is seen as hostile to "law and order." This includes civilian political authority and the courts, which politicians and, increasingly, the public, have chosen to portray as an impediment to law and order as opposed to a necessary component of it.
In this, such vocal support of "law and order" is in direct opposition to the rule of law, which requires checks on the power bestowed upon men, particularly the coercive power of government as manifested in armed police forces. It's a craving for the "order" without the "law." People want cops to "get the bad guys" but increasingly have no respect for the process by which "bad guys" are identified and handled and refuse to accept that the police themselves can ever be "bad guys." Such a view is anathema to a functioning civilian-led democracy. Indeed, it the very definition of authoritarianism.
Which brings us back to Donald Trump and Joe Arpaio. To the extent you approve of this pardon, you approve of a leader using his extraordinary power to vindicate his personal obsessions and to reward his allies. To the extent you believe Arpaio was deserving of this pardon, you do so because you believe that the power of police should be absolute and that the power of the courts to rein in that power is illegitimate. You, quite simply, approve of an authoritarian government.
We've been over this before. Nazis, white supremacists, white nationalists or whatever euphemistic name they care to give themselves, are the bad guys. There is no debating it. There are not two sides to the matter. They possess no redeeming quality. No matter how great their right to speak, they do not deserve to be heard because everything they have to say is vile. It is the duty of every American to stop this scum whenever it bubbles up.
We were once in unanimous agreement about that in this country. Your grandparents sure as hell knew it. If you disagree with that now -- if you want to claim there is an equivalence of any kind between Nazis, on the one hand, and people who oppose them on the other -- I don't care to know you and don't want to hear from you.
And you should probably examine why you think such stupid fucking things in the first place.
Last night at dinner, my kids -- who are always online and always see everything -- mentioned President Trump's irresponsible threats of nuclear war. They're bright kids who, I suspect, are about as well-informed as any other 12 and 13 year-olds, so they know the general outline.
I remember being pretty freaked out at the brinksmanship of the Cold War and, of course, "The Day After" scared the living bejesus out of me when I was around their age. So, despite their relative savviness and maturity, I was nonetheless cautious about how I talked about it, not wanting to upset them.
Then my son said, "I wonder what the last meme will be before the world blows up?" and he and my daughter began laughing their heads off about it. When I woke up this morning I saw that my daughter had sent me this, answering her brother's question.
If the planet does survive long enough for my kids to reach adulthood, it will be powered with disaffected irony. Not great, but I suppose there are worse things.
I first came across Scott McClanahan's work in his 2013 "non-fiction lite" book, "Crapalachia." McClanahan's writing -- at turns immediate, clear, funny, affecting, raw and, above all else, alive -- grabbed me and would not let go. His novel "Hill William" followed in the same year, building on "Crappalachia," doing everything it did well, but raising the emotional and dramatic stakes. Within the space of months I had a new favorite writer.
It wasn't just McClanahan's prose that grabbed me. I was drawn to him because he was writing about a place I knew well, southern West Virginia, where he was born and raised and still lives. I grew up in Beckley and I still consider it home, even if I haven't lived there for a long time. West Virginia was a character in these stories, every bit as alive as the people who inhabit them, and as such these books felt something like home to me.
All of which made me worry when, soon after I read "Crappalachia" and "Hill William," I learned that McClanahan was writing a book about the end of his first marriage.
When I read his last two books I was still recovering from my own divorce. Like McClanahan and his first wife, my ex and I were both from Beckley. It's a small place and there were bound to be parallels in our respective stories. When I heard about his divorce book I was going through a period in which, no matter how well I was doing for long stretches, I could still be derailed fairly easily by a triggering memory or suggestion. Three or four years ago a book on this subject, set in that place, by a writer with McClanhan's gifts, seemed like more than I'd ever be able to handle. In fact, a small, selfish part of me even hoped it would never see the light of day and that McClanahan would move on to another project.
The last couple of years have been much better to me. I finally sloughed off the last bits of baggage from my divorce and, rather than get bogged down by old memories, I learned how all of it -- the good and the bad -- fit in the context of my life. I learned how to enjoy and appreciate what my life is rather than worry about what it is not or what it could've been if things had gone differently. Most importantly I got married again to a wonderful woman who did more than anyone to help me through it all. My life is pretty fantastic now. A book about a big messy divorce set in the hills of West Virginia isn't going to destroy me like it might've a few years ago.
McClanahan's "The Sarah Book," was published earlier this month after a long gestation. I'll never know how I would've received it in 2013 or 2014, but I couldn't be happier to have it now. It's a fantastic book, as raw and immediate as his previous work -- I devoured it in two sittings which could've easily been one -- but it possesses a greater emotional depth than anything he's written before. McClanahan has been described by some as an enfant terrible of independent publishing, but "The Sarah Book" is a work of a man maturing and growing. A book that could only be written by someone who has seen some shit, lived through it and learned something from it all.
Which is not to say that this is a happy and pat story in any way. The (I suspect only slightly) fictionalized story of McClanahan's divorce is not at all comforting. It's, above all else, about loss. And death. Not merely the formal loss of a lover through legal process or the figurative death of love or a marriage but about actual loss and literal death and about how all of the stories we tell ourselves and all of the parts we play in this life -- as husband and wife, among other things -- are, ultimately, meaningless. Indeed, he begins the book with this notion, giving the reader no illusions in its opening passage that it's about anything else:
"There is only one thing I know about life. If you live long enough you start losing things. Things get stolen from you: First you lose your youth, and then your parents, and then you lose your friends, and finally you end up losing yourself."
Sarah is a nurse and McClanahan constantly returns to the stories she'd tell him about patients who'd come through Beckley's ARH hospital where she works. Dead or dying people whose lives, for the most part, do not adhere to the conventional life and death narratives we're used to hearing in polite fiction. Scott and Sarah have an elderly dog who dies, and his death is not pretty or poetic either. Any effort Scott and Sarah make to impose some sort of sense on the end of their marriage backfires as well. Scott thinks for a time that the marriage can be salvaged, not because there is anything inherently salvageable in it, but because, dammit, that's how the story was supposed to go and how dare Sarah fuck with the ending? But as "The Sarah Book" goes on, McClanahan impresses upon the reader that, no, that's not how things go. Everything dies eventually. People. Dogs. Marriages. No matter what your plans for them happened to be.
Despite it all, though, it's not a sad book. At least it wasn't to me, because McClanahan shows us that, even if death is inevitable and entropy is undefeated, there are moments of grace to be found in life. Or, at the very least, moments when we can sit and appreciate that life is less of a drama than it is a brief period when we all just try to do the best we can and, sometimes, actually manage it.
Sarah can find humor -- and does, often -- even when life is bringing her to tears. Their children can find happiness being held upside down by their grandfather, even when their dad is falling apart. Scott and his friend Chris can find moments of joy even when both of them are at their worst. The elderly dog can experience one last good healthy piss on the way to the vet's office before his undignified end. Scott and Sarah can each find love again, with other people, even when it seemed like their divorce was the end of the world.
The final scene of the book features Scott and his new wife sitting down for burgers and fries with Sarah and her new husband with Scott and Sarah's kids in tow. After all of the drama of the previous 200 pages, life is all about slightly awkward conversation, french fries, ketchup on a mother's fingers and a three-year-old boy looking up at the sky at airplanes. Is it anticlimax or is it a clear-eyed realization that, no matter what goes on inside our heads and our hearts life, in all of its quotidian detail, goes on? I suppose one can take it any number of ways. But having lived through much of what McClanahan did in "The Sarah Book," I was happy to see it. Drama and pain can only sustain a person for so long and, since death and loss is inevitable, it's better to push that stuff aside as best one can and do as much living in the short time we have as possible.
"The Sarah Book" does a masterful job of chronicling the pain and drama of a divorce, but there is hope in it as well. We need to endure the former but acknowledge the latter, even when it seems impossible. Thankfully, we have someone as talented and insightful as Scott McClanahan as our guide.
Some people who take in interest in genealogy discover that they are Irish when they thought they were Scottish. Others find a long-lost cousin. When I began looking at my family history I found out that my great-great grandmother murdered my great-great grandfather with an axe on a snowy winter's night in Detroit, Michigan in 1910.
Nellie Kniffen's violent rampage and her husband Frank's grisly demise was front page news in Detroit for several weeks, but she and her crime were soon forgotten, both by the public and by her family. Those who remembered it tried hard to forget it and those who came after knew nothing about it at all.
Through research of public records, personal interviews and a review of the sensationalistic newspaper stories written before Frank Kniffen's body grew cold, I unearthed a chapter which had been torn out of my family's history. And I began to better understand the ghosts and demons which have haunted my family for over a century.
The story of Nellie and Frank -- Nellie Kniffen Took An Axe -- is available as a Kindle eBook for $2.99.
Today every urbanite's favorite faux-hillbilly -- J.D. Vance -- writes an op-ed in the New York Times about the health care system entitled "A Republican Health Care Fix." I've written a lot of words about this guy over the past year, but as long as people keep giving him platforms on which to share his vacuity, I'll be here to point out just how vacuous it is.
His broad point is not terrible. He thinks the recently stalled GOP health care bill is bad policy and bad politics and something better is needed. Not an earth-shattering argument -- everyone who is not Donald Trump or a Republican member of Congress agrees -- but give him points for saying it.
Beyond that, Vance is attempting, in his own Vancian way, to make a more salient good point: that there should be some sort of baseline of care for people and that no one in need of health care should have the hospital's doors slammed in their face simply because they're poor. While that should, again, not be a very tough bogey to meet, in this day and age it somehow is, especially for conservatives, so give him some points for saying that too.
The problem here, however, is the exact same problem he displayed in "Hillbilly Elegy": he completely misdiagnoses the cause of a real problem and, in doing so, ensures that any solutions for which he or his supporters would advocate are doomed to failure.
Vance's view of the problem: it's the government's fault that there is a health care crisis in America. He argues this by offering a simple-minded analogy about a pedestrian being hit by a government vehicle in order to make a broad "you broke it, you bought it" argument:
This is where the Republican Party hits an ideological barrier that it simply must power through before meaningful reform can happen. Yes, solving problems can be expensive, and yes, that money always comes from taxpayers. But that’s true when a government truck plows into a pedestrian. You break it, you buy it, and the logic applies equally whether the broken thing is an individual or a complex marketplace.
"The government broke health care" position is simply not true. There have been multiple books written analyzing why our health care system is expensive and, in many ways, broken. The uniform conclusion: that while some unique factors drive our costs up compared to other countries (i.e. the United States' unique position in drug research and medical innovation) most of the costs baked into the system are a function of administrative and marketing overhead unique to a for-profit healthcare industry, passing costs on to consumers.
We have a system which incurs massive costs for advertising, branding and the need for hospitals and doctors offices to bill dozens if not hundreds of different insurance companies in dozens if not hundreds of different ways. We have a system that delivers care to different populations via different programs and administrative means based on age, geography, financial status, ethnic background, job status and a dozen other factors, and each of those systems has developed its own infrastructure, raising costs through massive complexity. On top of that a cut is taken for profit. In light of all of this, Vance's premise -- the government broke our healthcare system! -- is exactly backwards.
At this point some might be inclined to say "Hey, Vance is not an expert in this area. You acknowledge that he cares and that he means well, so cut him some slack. He's talking about important stuff!" Sorry, not gonna cut him slack. Partially because Vance has political aspirations now and should not be allowed to get away with broad, misleading generalizing about pressing policy matters of the day. Mostly, though, I won't cut him slack for the same reason I didn't cut him slack for "Hillbilly Elegy."
In my review of that now famous book I noted that, as here, Vance meant well. And that, as here, he was talking about a very real problem: the myriad crisis facing people in rural areas and the working class at large. But just as he does here, he misdiagnosed the cause of the problem. He argued that the crisis is attributable to a lack of character and work ethic by those suffering from it. That the white underclass from which he rose is struggling so mightily because it is not taking responsibility for its own decay. That their moral failures, as opposed to economic challenges, were to blame.
The arguments in "Hillbilly Elegy" were utter hogwash. Hogwash, it should be noted, that adheres pretty closely to the views of the Silicon Valley venture capital class and from which Vance more recently hails and which would pass muster with GOP political leaders who will, eventually, be asked to aid his political ambitions. But more importantly, it's hogwash that stands in the way of solving the very problems Vance claims to care about.
If one does not acknowledge the external forces working against the victims of the 21st century economy, one can never hope to solve them. If one blames the victims of that economy, one can easily wash one's hands of them. Indeed, the prevalent opinion of people I know who have read "Hillbilly Elegy" and who are not personally familiar with rust belt or Appalachian life is "Those poor people. Their problems seem impossible to solve!"
In this "Hillbilly Elegy" is a work of absolution. It reassures its readers -- mostly coastal and/or urban-dwelling elites -- that they and the system which has benefitted them is not to blame for what's happening in places like Ohio and Kentucky. In turn it gives them license to look away after they've gotten their 272 pages worth of rural poverty porn, content in the notion that they cannot do anything to help and thus cannot be criticized for turning away.
His take on the health care system is no different. He cares. He claims that he wants things to be better. But by blaming the government for the problem he necessarily encourages readers to get behind market-based solutions which are actually responsible for the problem. Yes, he allows that the government should play some role in that, but his "you broke it, you bought it" framing ensures that that role should be limited and exercised only out of shame and guilt. After all, if you break a wine decanter at Crate and Barrel, you don't get to make decisions about restocking and inventory. You cut a check and, preferably, get the hell out of the store, never to return.
It's not unheard of for a patient to get better after a doctor misdiagnoses her condition. But it's not common, especially if, like the current state of the U.S. health care system, the condition is serious, complex and requires a lot of hard work to cure. It's also the case that, once a doctor has made a spectacularly wrong diagnosis, one should not go back to him the next time one gets sick.
Yet platforms like the New York Times continue to turn to Dr. Vance, under the delusion that he has insight and solutions. This despite the fact that, when it comes to public policy, J.D. Vance has already proven himself to be a quack.
Daniel Drezner wrote a column in today's Washington Post about the foray of some "Silicon Valley thought leaders" into politics. The short version: Zynga’s Mark Pincus and LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman have launched a platform aimed at rallying people into political causes outside of the current party structure, forming some sort of center-left, pro-business movement and basically "disrupting" political engagement. Or something, in the way that only Silicon Valley types talk about such things.
Many have been sharply critical of this and similar initiatives. Drezner is critical, but less so, noting that even though Pincus and Hoffman are bound to fail, we should nonetheless take them and other Silicon Valley types seriously when they wade into politics, saying that Democrats should keep "their neoliberal billionaires inside the tent."
My distaste for neoliberalism notwithstanding, I don't necessarily disagree with Drezner. I don't believe anyone should be kept outside the tent if it can be helped. If they advocate good policies and want to make the world a better place - of if they are open to discussion about making the world a better place and share at least some common ground -- I want them in that tent. That's the point of all of this, after all.
At the same time, I share some of the skepticism many have about tech giants wading into politics, mostly because of the frankly odd manner in which tech giants tend to wade and the manner in which the media and the public has tended to discuss such wading.
So let's put it all into perspective, shall we?
By accident of my age and some friendships I made years and years ago, I know a number of people who are either Silicon Valley denizens themselves or people who at least orbit that world. They used to be programmers or startup employees, now they're mid-to-upper management guys. Some have made a lot of money. Others haven't. Some are academics now. But they all speak that odd Silicon Valley language and, at times, share a bit of it with me. It's a strange world, but so too is any somewhat insular subculture with which one is unfamiliar. Like any other, there is jargon and custom and behavior that those of us on the outside don't quite understand.
The people in that world, however, aren't fundamentally different than those of us who are not. Contrary to how tech moguls are often described, they have needs, desires and opinions that are not of some other planet.
When the election hit last year, a lot of Silicon Valley types freaked out, just like a lot of the rest of us did, because it did not conform to expectations. Most of them never thought that Trump would win and, like a lot of us, they started to question the assumptions they harbored. Assumptions which they thought were safe. As I said, Silicon Valley culture can be insular and, of course, Silicon Valley sits in the Bay Area, which is far more politically homogenous than a lot of places. While I disagree with so much of what has been written about so-called "bubbles," I don't think it's unreasonable to say that many of the political assumptions held by Silicon Valley types were less-challenged and more strongly held than those held by some of us in the Midwest, making the freakout of the Silicon Valley types a bit more pronounced than our own.
There are a lot of transplants in Silicon Valley. My friends are from Ohio, many others are from other places. During the post-election freakout, a lot of them asked me or their friends back home, "WHAT HAPPENED TO OHIO?" or "WHAT HAPPENED TO MICHIGAN?" Soon those panicky questions turned to more thoughtful ones like "what can I do to help Ohio?" or "what can I do to help Michigan?"
Some -- like venture capitalist-turned-author J.D Vance or former Uber executive Brian McClendon -- have moved back to their home states and have vowed to take an active role in politics. Some, while staying in California, have vowed to funnel money back home to political causes or to otherwise become engaged in local politics from afar. Some are still trying to figure it out the answer to that question. Some only asked that question for a while and then got back to the business of Silicon Valley.
Others, like Pincus and Hoffman, are simply trying to apply what they know to the problem. To combine their life's work with politics, while bringing the jargon and weirdness of their particular subculture along for the ride. Thus you read articles about entrepreneurs wanting to "disrupt democracy" and about how "thought leaders" are going to bring bold new innovation to a tired industry, just like they did so many times before. Because most in the media don't have a super strong grip on either business or technology, the coverage, like all the coverage of these folks which has come before, is often comically credulous.
Here's the thing, though: you can't "disrupt" politics, let alone public policy. Not in any fundamental way. Politics and policy will always come down to one's values and ones goals and how clearly those values and goals are communicated to voters. Voters who have shown, time and time again, that they will respond to ideas and promises, not branding and cultural framing on its own. You can try to sell them "innovation" and "the future" all you'd like, but they will not get on board with you unless you tell them what you plan to do, in very basic terms, or what it is you stand for, in very plain terms. Voters do not do Silicon Valley cloudspeak.
In light of that, I've talked to my friends in Silicon Valley about what, exactly, Silicon Valley actually wants. What are its political values. They have some ideas. They're not crazy or disruptive or innovative, really. They're a lot of things many people support and some things only a few people support, but they're pretty conventional, politically speaking:
All of this adds up to Silicon Valley being just like and other industry, sector or collective of activists. It wants what's good for it, in its conception of the world. And those wants are all things that have been discussed over and over again by any number of parties, politicians and interest groups. It's not sui generis.
In light of that, the next time you hear about a tech billionaire getting into politics or a group of entrepreneurs putting together some killer app that purports to change the game forever, note their status, but just for a moment. Note their financial power, but not in any way you wouldn't note the financial power of a media mogul or an investment banker who enters the political fray. Then: ask them what it is, exactly, they stand for and ask them if they have a good idea about how to implement it or to convince a majority of people to get behind it. If they stand for good things and have good ideas, join them. If they don't, don't. As I have argued before, there is no magic bullet when it comes to this stuff.
What we should not be doing is what so many in the press have been doing lately, which is treating these guys as if they're magical unicorns with heretofore unprecedented ideas, with plans to disrupt democracy forever.
After weeks of secrecy and silence, Senate Republicans have finally revealed their version of the healthcare bill which will repeal the Affordable Care Act. You can read it here.
I'll save you some time, though: it slashes medicaid spending by billions, allows insurers to deny coverage to people with preexisting conditions, including women who are pregnant, will raise insurance premiums and deductibles and will result in tens of millions of people losing health insurance. It will also give a $33 billion tax cut to 400 of the richest households in the United States. Billionaires.
I'm sure there are already talking points being issued about why this law is so important and beneficial. Such arguments are transparently false and don't hold up under a microgram of scrutiny, but they'll make those who offer them feel better.
But irrespective of such talking points and irrespective of any one law or policy, a simple truth remains: if you're hellbent on making things better for super rich people and making them harder for poor people -- which this bill does unequivocally -- you're doing humanity wrong. And there's no talking point that changes that.
Today Donald Trump opened a meeting by having his cabinet members go around the table to praise him. As it unfolded, each official attempted to obsequiously outdo the last with flattery of their boss. This actually happened.
This, by the way, is the same way Shakespeare's "King Lear" opens. Instead of cabinet members, it's Lear asking his daughters to praise him in order to justify their inheritance.
In other news, "King Lear" chronicles the descent of a leader into madness and death, set on his course by an almost comical but ultimately tragic narcissism.
Today Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. This, quite obviously, makes the business of combatting climate change that much harder given that the world's largest economy is abdicating its responsibilities under the agreement.
Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement likewise damages America's stature as a world power. One hundred and ninety countries are committed to it, with only Syria and Nicaragua refusing to agree to it before today. Our joining those two countries in turning our backs on Paris is a declaration that America no longer leads and no longer wishes to lead when it comes to combatting the world's great problems.
All of that said, the business of combatting climate change will not stop. Nearly every other country on the planet is still committed to Paris, and the majority of U.S. based companies who have actual skin in the game of climate change are likewise committed to it. Indeed, in the minutes following Trump's announcement to withdraw from Paris today, numerous CEOs and entrepreneurs voiced their displeasure with the move and many more will do so in the near future.
They will do this because they know that climate change is the most pressing promise facing civilization today. They also know -- as I wrote recently -- that advanced energy technologies and industries are key to both our economic and environmental future, and that the advancement of these technologies and the work of these industries will not cease, even if Donald Trump turns his back on them and their importance.
So why has Trump done this? There are several reasons, separate and apart from the typical Republican desire to do the bidding of wealthy donors with interests in the fossil fuel industry.
Trump gained office by appealing to the fears and anxieties of people who have seen the 21st century economy pass them by and who pine for the days when coal mines, factories and refineries employed entire towns. Trump found it easier to make his supporters false promises of their return rather than articulate a vision in which new industries and a new economy may come to benefit them. By turning his back on Paris, he believes he is doing what these voters asked him to do.
Another reason, though, is basic isolationism. Today Trump seemed to criticize the Paris Agreement primarily because it is, quite simply, an international agreement. He talked about "America First" policies and struck many of the same chords that his advisor Steve Bannon and others in the alt-right movement have stuck with respect to the dangers of globalism. They want to build a figurative wall to keep out the international community in much the same way they want to build a real wall to keep out immigrants.
As I noted above, however, international actors and global corporations will nonetheless continue to work to combat climate change and will continue to work to grow the advanced energy sector with or without Trump's approval. As they do so, they'll necessarily be engaging with other U.S.-based businesses, state and local governments and U.S. citizens and workers. Anti-globalism may be a potent talking point on the campaign trail, but not even the president of the United States can cut the cross-border bonds which have been formed in our increasingly interconnected world.
Which brings us to this afternoon. A day on which, after Donald Trump's self-congratulatory words about withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, he listened as a military band played celebratory jazz music and Trump basked in the congratulations of his closest advisors, political allies and supporters.
As he enjoyed this day, I wonder if any of his anti-globalist supporters appreciated the irony of his handing multinational corporations and international actors even more power in the shaping of the future of the world than they had before he acted today.
In the past several years many have made a point -- a good point -- to gently remind people that Memorial Day is not the same thing as Veterans Day. To remind us that this day is not set aside to thank living military members or veterans for their service and it's certainly not a day for patriotic platitudes or displays to eclipse our commemoration of those who died in service to our country.
But while the "it's Memorial Day, not Veterans Day" correctives are worth acknowledging, I think there is something similar to how we tend to approach both holidays that is equally worth acknowledging.
Memorial Day is a holiday commemorating those who died in war. Indeed, it is rooted in literal visits to the graves of the fallen. Veterans Day, originally anyway, was a holiday intended to celebrate the ending of a war. While the former has informally morphed into something else and the latter was officially changed to encompass a different purpose, the fact remains that our nation, for whatever reason, has moved away from the notion that war is bad, that its byproducts are tragic and that its ending should be celebrated. It has, instead, filled those spaces with patriotism and, in some cases nationalism and militarism.
It says a lot about where we are as a country right now that we have pushed the bad parts of war out of our national consciousness and have wholly disposed with celebrating the endings of wars. Maybe it's because, these days, our wars do not end.
Whatever the case, I do not think that focusing and reflecting upon the tragedy of war and celebrating the ending of wars are bad things nor do they do a disservice to those who have fought and who have died. To the contrary, I can think of nothing that would honor and aid those men and women more.
Yesterday the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released its report on the impact of the House Republican plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with the AHCA. The bottom line: 23 million Americans will lose health care coverage, one million Ohioans among them.
The impact will be felt primarily by the most vulnerable members of society. Senior citizens. The poor. The sick. The very people who we, as a country, should be doing the most to help would be the ones harmed the most by this callous, cruel and immoral law.
What's more, the CBO report reminds us that it's not just those who are on Medicaid or who purchase insurance through ACA exchanges who will be harmed by this law. To the contrary, the CBO reports that insurance coverage for one-sixth of all Americans would “become unstable by 2020.”
This will occur because of the increased costs and pressure put on our health care system which will now be serving millions without being paid for it. This will occur because the AHCA gives states the right to drastically cut health care benefits to those with preexisting conditions and to drastically increase the number of conditions deemed "preexisting." This will occur because, under the AHCA, health insurance premiums will rise by 20 percent by 2018 and another five percent the following year. Again, all confirmed by the non-partisan CBO.
All of this so that Republicans can give a massive tax cut to the rich. All of this to please the insurance companies and drug companies which have donated millions to Republican campaigns. None of this to help Americans who have found themselves victimized by callous and uncaring health insurers, drug companies and medical expenses which have spiraled out of control due to gouging and profit-seeking by the very people supporting the AHCA.
Yesterday, my congressman, Pat Tiberi, called this "just the start." If this is how it starts, God help us all once he and his Republican colleagues in Congress really get going.
The AHCA will do violence to millions of Americans, preventing the sick from obtaining necessary medical treatment and forcing those who do manage to obtain treatment to risk bankruptcy and financial ruin.
Any lawmaker who supports it has abdicated their responsibility to their constituents and has shown themselves unfit for public service. They should be told this in no uncertain terms and they should be voted out of office at the earliest available opportunity.
Today Donald Trump will unveil the first comprehensive budget proposal of his presidency. The details have been leaked to the media already, however, and they reveal the most aggressive cuts to programs benefiting needy Americans in living memory:
The budget demonstrates nothing short of unconscionable cruelty to the poor, slashing trillions from the social safety net while giving out the largest handouts to the rich and to big business in American history.
What's more, the proposal is based on bald faced lies regarding how it will be paid for and the impact it will have on the national budget.
Trump recently proposed $5.5 trillion in tax cuts. The proposal excludes those entirely, hiding the fact that those cuts will take away a gigantic chunk of revenue. At the same time, the proposal assumes comically unrealistic economic growth created by those very same tax cuts. Given the idea that tax cuts to the wealthy will trickle down to benefit the rest of America in the form of economic growth has been thoroughly debunked, Trump's budget proposal is doubly dishonest.
Thankfully, a president does not have the ability to unilaterally impose a budget and thankfully there will be people fighting hard against it. I have faith that those doing so will ultimately prevail because this budget does not reflect the values and principles of most Americans.
In the meantime, however, we must work to highlight how disastrous these proposals would be for the most vulnerable Americans. And how disastrous they will be to the country as a whole, over time, if they are implemented. We must demonstrate how cruel and heartless Trump's budget is. And how cruel and heartless those who support it are.
Tomorrow, my congressman, Pat Tiberi, will join Speaker Paul Ryan and fellow central Ohio representative Steve Stivers here in my very own town of New Albany, Ohio. They will be holding a roundtable discussion on tax reform. Then Tiberi will meet with one of his constituents.
Unfortunately, you're not allowed to go to the roundtable. It's by invitation only, at a private business, owned by a couple who have made thousands upon thousands of dollars in donations to Tiberi over the years. The company owes the state of Ohio $3.5 million in taxes, by the way, so you know their questions challenging Tiberi's and Ryan's questionable views about tax reform will be hard hitting, balanced and incisive.
The constituent Tiberi will be meeting with afterward is Les Wexner, the billionaire founder of L Brands. He's Ohio's richest man. The purpose is for a fundraiser for Republican congressional candidates. It'll be held at Wexner's 100 acre estate which is literally surrounded by fences on which there are signs notifying passers-by that the property is patrolled by dogs. I am not kidding about that.
In other news, Pat Tiberi is still not planning on holding a town hall or otherwise answering to the thousands of constituents he just voted to deprive of health care.
The American Health Care Act, the health care bill on which the House intends to vote today, is not just bad policy and cynical political calculation. It's immoral, plain and simple.
The reason Republicans are trying to pass this bill? It slashes taxes on the wealthiest two percent of earners. That's it. All of that damage done to give rich people a tax cut which they'll hardly even notice. The new bill does nothing to help ordinary working Americans in any way and will, in fact, harm millions of them. By voting in favor of it they are sending a loud and clear signal that they value the wealth of the richest Americans over the health of millions.
The specific impact of these items are not fully known because Republicans in Congress are ramming the bill through without hearings, without getting a CBO score and, in some cases, without them even having seen the text of the bill. In some cases, such as in the case of my congressman, Pat Tiberi, they are simply lying about its contents. They are doing so because they know full well how terrible this bill is and unpopular this bill will be once more people are aware of what it does.
It is a shameful bill, being passed in a shameful fashion. While I am optimistic that the bill will die in the Senate, the mere act of passing it in the House is immoral. It is greedy. It is cynical. It is harmful. It is irresponsible. It is wrong.
Any member of Congress who votes for it today will have disqualified themselves from public service and shown themselves to care nothing for the men and women who voted for them to represent their interests. And they will pay heavily for doing so.
President Trump plans to begin talking about his tax overhaul today. It will, not surprisingly, be a giveaway to the wealthy. Based on what we know:
There is no upside to this. And the sales pitch which will try to make you believe otherwise is a scam.
The centerpiece of the plan is to slash the corporate tax rate from 35% to 15%. This despite the fact that corporate profits are soaring, corporate tax revenues are at record lows and workers are seeing little if any of the benefit. This unnecessary giveaway to businesses is estimated to cost two trillion dollars. This at a time when the federal deficit is already over $500 billion a year.
Trump and the Republicans will claim that the tax cuts will pay for themselves by stimulating economic growth. This is a lie, pure and simple. An old one, actually, as Republicans have been promising such things from tax cuts for decades as part of their "trickle-down" economic theory. It's a theory, however, which has been consistently refuted by experience.
There is zero correlation between tax cuts and economic growth. Indeed, economic growth in the United States since World War II has been greater in times with relatively high top marginal tax rates, such as in the 1950s and 1990s, which we all know and remember as boom times. This does not mean that higher tax rates lead to economic growth, of course, but it does mean that they do not impede it. In reality, there is no strong relationship between the two things at all, no matter what Republicans tell you.
Trump and Republicans in Congress will likewise claim that the tax cuts will cause businesses to use their savings to hire more workers. While, theoretically, yes, companies with more cash on hand could use it to hire more workers or invest in new facilities in the United States, we have seen that, in practice, they are far more likely to hold on to the money as cash reserves, benefitting no one, or to distribute it to their wealthy stockholders. As is the case with overall economic growth, low tax rates for the wealthy and for corporations have rarely correlated with employment growth.
The plan will also call for a massive cut in the top tax rate on “pass-through” companies, such as sole proprietorships, S corporations, and partnerships which pay their taxes through the individual income tax code rather than through the corporate code. While this will be sold as a break for mom-and-pop businesses, the benefits of such a plan will not be realized by the guy who owns the corner store.
Pass-through businesses are often huge, sophisticated and wealthy companies. They generate over half of all business income in the country and employ more than half of the private sector workforce. A great example of a pass-through business: The Bechtel Corporation, the largest engineering company in the country, which has over $30 billion in annual revenues. Other examples: hedge fund managers, doctors and lawyers who own their own practices and people who earn income from motivational and promotional speaking. Another example of a pass-through business: The Trump Organization. Indeed, Donald Trump personally stands to save tens of millions of dollars a year under his tax plan. The pass-through tax cut will be portrayed as a benefit for businessmen who struggle to get by. In reality, it's little more than a gift to the wealthy.
No matter what specific part you look at, Trump's tax plan and similar tax plans proposed by Republicans in Congress have one unifying theory: cuts to the tax rates paid by the wealthy and pain inflicted on the poor and the middle class.
An analysis of Paul Ryan’s proposed tax plan found that a whopping 99.6 percent of the tax-cut money would go to the top 1 percent of income earners. In turn, budget proposals floated by Republicans contain massive cuts to infrastructure spending, education, medical and scientific research, child care, job training, the arts, our national parks and public lands and a host of safety net programs that help families make ends meet in tough times. This is not just theoretical: the two states which have rolled out tax plans like Trump's -- Kansas and Louisiana -- have been thrown into economic and budgetary chaos.
The priorities of Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress are exactly backwards.
To the extent Donald Trump had any mandate, it was a mandate to help working people and ordinary Americans who have been left behind by a quickly-evolving global economy. That's what people who voted for him desperately wanted and desperately need. His tax plan is a slap in the face to those people and a windfall for him and his wealthy friends. It should be rejected out of hand.
Last night I saw Brian Wilson perform at the Palace Theater for his “Pet Sounds: The Final Performances” tour. It’s amazing enough that Wilson is touring given his history of mental illness, drug abuse and now, as he's approaching 75 years-old, physical decline, but he's still doing it. And doing it well.
His voice is still recognizably his voice. He's not like Bob Dylan or Tom Waits or someone who has had to become a fundamentally different kind of singer than he once was due to ravaged vocal cords. The same old tone and timbre of 1960s Brian Wilson is there. He may not tear into the second verse of "I'm waiting for the day" with that aggressive edge so evident on the album version, he doesn't sustain notes like he did when he was young and, yes, he occasionally hits a clunker, but he's still unmistakably Brian Wilson.
If anything, the flaws in his singing enhance the experience of seeing him live. He's not a jukebox full of oldies like some other artists are. And the mere act of him being on that stage singing those songs elevated his performance above that of his increasingly vanishing contemporaries and vanishingly few artistic peers.
I don't begrudge The Rolling Stones, the Who or Paul McCartney going on the road and playing concerts into their 70s. They're legends, people love them and their music, they put on great shows and, of course, they're more than entitled to make money off of the art they created. But there is something . . . off about it. There is something off about Mick Jagger singing about how he can't get satisfaction when we know he's rarely had anything but satisfaction for the past 50 years. There's something silly about Roger Daltrey singing that he hopes he dies before he gets old when he's already old. There's something downright creepy about a wrinkly-faced Paul McCartney telling us that we know what he means about that girl who's just 17.
One might think this problem would be even greater for Wilson doing "Pet Sounds," actually. The album he once famously called "a teenage symphony to God" is about young romance. About that moment when teenage love changes from butterflies in one's stomach to one's first feelings of melancholy. It evokes emotions common to anyone who has ever experienced love, but they're feelings unique to a certain time and place in our lives that we never again recapture. That's not the stuff one would expect to wear well when sung by a 70-something year old man. Despite his age, however, there is something poignant about Wilson singing from the point of view of his younger self that is absent when others do it.
Ideally art stands on its own, without the audience bringing their own knowledge about the artist with them, but that's next to impossible when it comes to Wilson. We know what his life was like at the time "Pet Sounds" was recorded. We know how much more difficult it would become in the two decades-plus after it came out and how damaged Wilson came out on the other end. Jagger, McCartney and Daltrey all had personal ups and downs of course, but compared to Wilson they've lived pretty happy and contented lives. In light of this, their taking to the road seems like a pleasant but somewhat superfluous and undoubtedly commercial act.
Wilson didn't have the same sort of happy and contended second and third public acts as those guys. He's never gotten the chance to connect with his old songs and his old fans in the same way they have. And given that his former bandmates Mike Love and Bruce Johnston have long toured as The Beach Boys, playing the biggest Beach Boys hits in theaters, state fairs and other venues with relatively low ticket prices, a lot of his old fans might not even care too much anymore. They've seen what they wanted to see for the most part. As such, Wilson's act of singing his old songs -- these particular old songs, which were never as commercially successful as the stuff Love and Johnston perform -- seems more personal to him. More important and significant.
While I'm likely projecting to some degree, as Wilson sang through "Pet Sounds," it seemed as if he was reaching back through time for something necessary. Something he didn't get to fully enjoy and explore at the time and something he finally can now as opposed to simply putting on a show. He may have played these songs or things like them over and over again in his home, but on this tour he's getting to play them with a full band -- he had ten backing musicians and singers, including original Beach Boy Al Jardine and one-time Beach Boy contributor Blondie Chaplin -- forming those harmonies he's on record as saying are his favorite parts of his songs.
It was a great show for us, but you can't help but feel it's a rewarding and perhaps necessary act for Wilson to play these songs. Necessary in ways it's simply not necessary for others to play their old songs. This may have been most evident in the opening and closing of the show when, as a warmup/encore, he played some of the more popular Beach Boys songs like "Help me Rhonda" and "California Girls," with Jardine doing an admirable job with the Mike Love vocals. They were fine, but somewhat rote. The crowd stood, cheered and sang along, but Wilson seemed to be going through the motions with them to some degree. The big hits don't seem particularly important to Wilson.
The "Pet Sounds" songs, which were played in order, in their entirety after an intermission, felt more moving and stirring. And not just because they’re better songs. It's because, with the possible exceptions of "Wouldn't it be nice?" and "Sloop John B," a lot of people don't know all the words to a lot of them. And even if they do, they're not exactly jukebox singalongs. They provided an opportunity for Wilson to sing and perform for us in ways that McCartney and the Stones can't without resorting to an obscure R&B cover. People know "Pet Sounds," of course, but it's not back-of-their-hand stuff like "Maybe I'm Amazed" or "Brown Sugar." Wilson was reacquainting many in the crowd with those songs just as he was revisiting them himself and the net effect of it was stirring.
Stirring in and of itself, but also stirring because the man singing the songs is, in 2017, still here. Against all odds, he's still here. Reaching back for something one gets the sense he loves and needs just as much if not more than any of us.