I took my kids to Cleveland for the Orioles-Indians game on Friday night. They’re not really big baseball fans, but they like going to games. Partially because it’s fun and there’s junk food, but mostly because it provides them a new venue for the sort of savage and absurdist commentary for which Gen-Z kids are quickly becoming famous.
I’ve watched this from a front row seat for a couple of years now. Anyone who follows me on Twitter is familiar with how brutally my daughter Anna, 14, owns me via text messages (and some old timers around here may remember her greatest hits from WAY back in the day). Others who follow me know how deeply into absurdist and envelope-pushing meme culture my son, Carlo, 13, happens to be. Every day is a new, eye-opening adventure. I’m impressed by the level of savagery they’re capable of in their early teens and terrified at what they’re going to capable of once they reach adulthood.
I’m likewise suffering from no small amount of whiplash. I mean, I once thought my fellow Gen-Xers and I had perfected ironic emotional detachment and that whole “whatever, nothing matters anyway” stance. I also thought that a decade’s worth of Millennials restoring an earnestness and emotional honesty to the lexicon of our nation’s youth — the likes of which we haven’t seen for probably 60 or 70 years — had all but buried that jaded sentiment once and for all.
Nope. The Gen-Z kids are going to stomp on the Millennials’ throats and pour acid all over their hopes, dreams and pretensions of an earnest and hopeful world. Then they’ll laugh mockingly at the Gen-Xers as we’re exposed for the amateurs that we are, and will rhetorically kill us, like some warrior coming back to vanquish their sensei. The only saving grace is that whatever Boomers are still left as this happens will just die of shock and outrage. Gen-Z will not be attending their funerals either unless they need some pics of dead grandpa for a devastating meme or two (Carlo has already told my father that he’s going to meme him once he passes away; my father does not quite know what to make of that, mostly because he’s 74 and does not know what a meme is).
Anyway, I’ve blocked out most of what they had to say during the game as a means of psychological self-defense, but trust me when I say that it was three straight hours of running commentary at turns hilarious, frightening and truly disturbing in ways that are hard to pin down. I do, however, remember or have documentation of a few things that went down in between the hot dogs and bon mottes:
All of that being said, I don’t want you to get the impression that Anna and Carlo’s entire existence is savage owns and joking and ironic detachment. They are actually smart, sweet and sensitive kids who, when they’re not joking around, possess more empathy for their fellow humans than most adults who have seen and experienced far more than they have do. I am proud of my kids for that. Truly proud. Indeed I worry that the jaded exterior I’ve been describing is a defensive perimeter they and their generation have been forced to erect because the generations which came before them have thrown so much fear into their world and, perhaps, are even ruining it before my kids get a chance to live in it as adults. That’s a lot to put on anyone, but the fact that we’ve put that sort of weight on our children is a tragedy. Knowing that the’ll have to cope with what we have done to make their lives harder and, quite possibly, shorter, breaks my heart.
Those thoughts were swirling around my head as the game neared its end Friday evening. As they did, I looked over to Carlo and Anna sitting next to me. They were watching the game intently. And, even though it had started raining, quite contently. They seemed happy. The cynicism and the wiseguy routines had been left back in the middle innings somewhere. When Cody Allen struck out Kyle, er, I mean Joey Rickard, for the game’s final out, they both stood up and cheered a genuine and exuberant cheer. When they did, I figured it was a good opportunity for some rare heartfelt sincerity.
“So, Baseball. You like it, eh?” I said in my proudest dad voice, thinking that, just maybe, we had bonded over something near and dear to my heart. Anna looked at me and smiled. Then she said something I’ll never forget.
“Not really. But I guess I sort of have to respect it because if it wasn’t for baseball you’d be unemployed and I’d probably be homeless.”
Last year I spent a lot of time talking about Ohio's 12th district. I wrote about how I thought it was possible for a Democrat to win it and I proceeded to lay out a multipart road map of how, in my view, it could be done. This despite the fact that the district is sharply gerrymandered to favor Republicans.
The special election was held tonight and, as I write this, it appears that the Democrat, Danny O'Connor, will not win. There are still uncounted provisional and mail-in ballots, but I suspect that will not be enough and that the Republican Troy Balderson will be declared the victor.
This is not the outcome I hoped for, but it is is not a bad result.
The GOP has held OH-12 for all but one term in the last 76 years. Since OH-12 was gerrymandered, the Republican has won with a margin of 27-40 points. In 2016, the district went 11 points in favor of Trump, 14 points to the right of the nation and the GOP congressional candidate won by nearly 40 points.
Tonight, it appears, the Republican will win by a couple of points, max. That is a massive underperformance for the Republican, even when you account for the fact that the seat was open and even when you account for the fact that the GOP holds the presidency and it's an off-year election, which normally favors the opposition party. The fundamentals of this district -- again, massively gerrymandered to favor Republicans -- means that it should've been a cakewalk instead of the nail-biter that it was.
Some additional thoughts about this:
As you may remember -- and as you can see if you follow the links above -- I spent a lot of time last year talking about this race, along with my theory that an economic populist/pro-labor message was the key to winning a district like this one. O'Connor did not run that pro-labor/economic populist race. I'm not second-guessing that. He and his people had access to the data, talked to the voters and made the decisions. My stuff on that was merely speculative. As I wrote last night: it was a strong outcome, even in loss.
That said, turnout was high for an off-year, special election, but still rather pathetic in the grand scheme. I think you address that -- and thereby overcome the huge gerrymander disadvantage -- by engaging traditional non-voters and that the economic populism does that. As Alexandra Ocasio-Ortez said recently, “the swing voter is not red to blue. The swing voter is non voter to voter. That’s our swing voter.”
There is reason to believe that's who is necessary to engage in OH-12. I say this because, based on preliminary results, it appears that O'Connor was not turning red voters blue. Red voters stayed home. O'Connor ramped up turnout in the blue parts of OH-12 due to an excellent ground game led by motivated volunteers, but partisan lines generally weren't crossed. It was a motivation thing. What if new voters were engaged? Voters who, their personal and cultural dispositions aside, had never committed to being active partisan voters?
This is untestable I suspect. But I likewise suspect that there are thousands upon thousands of people in Licking, Morrow, Richland and Muskingum county -- and in Franklin county for that matter -- who never vote who might with a new message. A message that speaks to issues which politicians generally don't speak to and which reaches people who generally are not reached.
Again, I am not criticizing the O'Connor campaign in this regard. It was a good result even if the ultimate outcome was a loss. But I suspect that's the absolute limit a traditional Democrat can do in a place like OH-12 given the maximal motivation we saw on the Democratic side and the sorts of election dynamics which we are unlikely to see again any time soon. It was an admirable effort, but one which still fell short. It strikes me that, maybe, one needs a different message to match the admirable mobilization we saw and to break through in a district that has every other dynamic strongly stacked in Republicans' favor.
All that aside: for November, it means good things for Democrats nationwide. As of this writing, it appears that OH-12 will have seen around a a 13 point swing toward Democrats over and above the natural partisan lean of the seat. Nationwide, at the moment, it appears that things are swinging about 15 points to the Democrats. Based on those results, it all but ensures a blue wave in November.
I'm sad that the Democrat did not win, bit I am hopeful that this is a harbinger of a strong Democratic showing in November and, finally, a push back against the ruinous path on which Donald Trump and the Republican party has led this country for the past two years.
Last year I wrote a multi-part series about how, in my view, it was very, very possible for a Democrat to win my district, the Ohio 12th Congressional district. This despite the fact that the district is sharply gerrymandered to favor Republicans. This despite the fact that the Republican routinely carried two-thirds of the vote. In so doing I laid out a multipart road map of how, in my view, a Democratic candidate could win.
As I write this, we are six days from the special election to pick Tiberi's successor and, while there are no guarantees until the election actually, you know, happens, the Democratic candidate, Danny O'Connor, stands a pretty good chance at flipping one of the country's deepest red districts blue:
In the special election to be held next Tuesday, Balderson the Republican has 44% support and O’Connor the Democrat has 43% support among all potential voters . . . A relatively large 11% remain undecided. A little over one month ago, Balderson had a 43% to 33% advantage among all potential voters . . . a standard model that looks like a typical midterm voter pool shows the race basically tied at 46% for Balderson and 45% for O’Connor . . . In a Democratic “surge” model akin to turnout patterns that have been seen in some but not all special elections held since 2017, O’Connor has 46% and Balderson has 45%.
A tossup to be sure, but again, since the district was gerrymandered, the Republican has won with a margin of no lower than 27 points and by as many as 40 points.
I cannot say that I have been fully on board with everything Danny O'Connor has done as a candidate. He has, contrary to my prescription last year, tracked to the center in several respects and has not made economic populism a central part of his campaign. That said, my prescriptions were based on national data and voter attitudes while he no doubt has far more accurate data about this district. My gut instincts about it all may be wrong and, even if he does not win, I will in no way be playing any "I told you so" games. To do so would be like the football fan who calls plays from his couch and it's not worth much at this time of the campaign.
All I know for sure is that this performance, at this moment, seems damn nigh astounding.
If O'Connor, or any other Democrat, were to lose next week's special election by fewer than 20 points it would be a historic underachievement for the Republican in this district. If he were to lose by single digits, it would be a harbinger of doom for the GOP in the runup to this fall's elections.
That O'Connor may actually win this damn thing places us someplace extraordinary indeed.
(if you want to support O'Connor, do so here)
Donald Trump is in the United Kingdom today and The Scotsman, Scotland's national newspaper, published an editorial about him. There is not a single new piece of information in it, but it's nonetheless a must-read. Primarily because there is not a single new piece of information in it:
None of this is news to anyone, obviously, but it helps to step back, often, and remember just how horrible and disgusting our president is on a basic personal level. We tend to forget or, at the very least, gloss over it as we lurch from nightmare to nightmare -- his profound noxiousness, to use an overused phrase, normalized -- but it's important that we remember it. It's important that we remember that his contemptibility is not merely a product of what he's doing, but a product of what he is.
We live in maddening times not merely because we're pursuing awful policies as a nation, but because we're doing it in the service of the worst human being America has produced in the past 70 years. Indeed, most of the laws that have passed and the executive policies pursued since Donald Trump took office in January 2017 would've been carried out under any Republican president -- we know this because Republicans have either actively supported or have silently acquiesced to them --- but his depraved and despicable character sets him apart and brings us all down that much lower. The current Republican agenda is calamitous for our country as it is, but the manner in which he has demoralized Americans and has debased America and its institutions is undermining our very ability to undo his damage once he is gone.
I'm strongly of the view that a politicians policies and platforms matter far more than personal traits. It's counterproductive at best and dangerous at worst to treat politicians like celebrities or brands and no politician will have my support, no matter how likable or upstanding they are, if they do not support laudable and effective policies. We should, however, have a minimum baseline as to who is acceptable as a leader. We should be willing to say that, no, we will not support and, indeed, that we will actively oppose malevolent figures even if we, personally, are not the target of their malevolence.
This should not be a difficult notion to accept, but it's amazing how many people have shown themselves willing to overlook the malevolence of Donald Trump because his awfulness does not directly impact their lives and because, in fact, Trump has been good for them, personally speaking.
There are, broadly, two sorts of people on the political right these days. There are those who thoroughly love and support Donald Trump and there are those who, while claiming to loathe him, are quite happy to accept him and ignore his vileness in order to get something out of him. In many ways I think the second group are worse.
I pity the hardcore, never-wavering Trump supporters more than anything. Many of them are themselves proudly and unashamedly vile and, apart from wondering from time to time who and what made them that way, they're not worth anyone's time when it comes to political debate. Many others are simply desperate and turned to Trump without, I suspect, fully understanding what he was and what he'd do. The only hope there is to elect new leaders who will enact good policies that will make their lives and everyone else's life better thereby relieving them of their desperation and showing them that, no, not everyone in Washington is out to screw them over. We've done a horrible job at this, basically forever.
The latter group, though -- those Republicans who say they hate Donald Trump but who have done absolutely nothing meaningful to oppose him and much, in fact, to enable him -- have made a choice. A bargain, really. They've chosen to look the other way at everything Trump is and everything Trump does because they were promised and were delivered tax cuts and deregulation and permission to continue to think of nothing and no one but themselves in just the manner they have been encouraged to do for the past 40 years or so. These people -- who make up the bulk of Trump's support, by the way -- are not the "deplorables" who made national headlines in 2016 or the "white working class" who were so misrepresented and so misleadingly overexposed in feature stories since then. They're the lawyers and bankers and business owners who happily exchanged their moral and ethical integrity for a few more dollars in their already large paychecks each month.
They are the ones who claim, now, that they don't care for Donald Trump but who happily donate to and support the campaigns of Republican Congressmen who have enabled and protected him. They are the ones who, in the future, will claim long and loudly how much they hated Trump without every being able to articulate how, exactly, they opposed him in anything approaching a meaningful way.
But they know. And we know. And just as we should not forget how despicable Donald Trump is as a human being and how unfit he is to lead our country, we should not forget who put him in power and who let him disgrace and dishonor America in the manner in which he has.
Do you like bourbon? Then I have a story for you.
Some of you may remember The Great Pappy Van Winkle Heist from back in 2013. Hundreds of bottles of the most expensive, most highly sought-after bourbon known to man, Pappy Van Winkle was reported stolen. Coming as it did amidst an unprecedented boom in the popularity of bourbon, it made national news. International news even.
In 2015, Franklin County, Kentucky Sheriff Pat Melton claimed to crack the case. A criminal syndicate was behind it, he said. Racketeering! Guns! Drugs! Serious, serious business. Over a half dozen arrested. A man named Toby Curtsinger the alleged kingpin. The assailants faced decades in prison under state RICO laws. It was a major, major deal and, once again, made news around the globe.
And then, three years later, it was no longer big news at all. It wasn't even all that big of a crime.
One person had charges dropped against them. Everyone else pleaded guilty, with all but one serving no jail time whatsoever. The alleged kingpin, Toby Curtsinger, was sentenced to 15 years. He served 30 days and was released on shock probation just this past weekend.
What made the case turn into almost nothing, with almost no jail time? The fact that there really was no Pappy Van Winkle Heist at all. At least not as it was portrayed.
I am the first and so far the only person I know of to speak to Toby Curtsinger about the case on the record. He invited me to Frankfort to interview him back in January. He told me everything. The reality is far more interesting than the coverage, even if it's nowhere close to being as sexy. I did a short writeup of it for it for Bloomberg-Business Week, which they illustrated into a fun little cartoony bit.
The short version: people in distilleries have been stealing bourbon forever. People have been stealing Pappy for years too. No one really paid it much mind. The alleged Heist was mostly a function of an overzealous employee noticing the inventory being off by 200 bottles and calling the police because he was worried he'd get in trouble. Note: the inventory was always off, usually by more than 200 bottles, and there is almost no chance anyone would've gotten in trouble for it, let alone noticed it. Buffalo Trace would almost certainly have done what they always did in such instances: written the missing bottles off as "breakage." Once the police were called, however, it was a big deal and it all spiraled from there.
In reality, the "Heist" was a snapshot in time, made possible by antiquated security and quality control at the Buffalo Trace Distillery, not uncommon at most distilleries until relatively recently. If not for a local sheriff (since voted out of office) trying to make himself look good and the Buffalo Trace Distillery realizing, after the fact, that it was the best free advertising Pappy Van Winkle ever got, none of this would've made even local news. In the end, of course, this was also all made possible by a crazy cocktail culture-fueled bourbon bubble characterized by marks paying thousands for a bottle of wheated bourbon that, 20 years ago, was being sold in novelty, collectable crocks with cartoon hillbillies on it. That sort of dynamic tends to incentivize a black market and tends to help pedestrian stories make the headlines.
Oh, and despite being portrayed as the "Pappy Van Winkle Bandit" none of the charges against Toby Curtsinger actually involved Pappy Van Winkle. He was popped for possessing five barrels of stolen Wild Turkey. It truly was the Pappy Van Winkle Heist that wasn't.
Finally: I actually did a much, much longer and in-depth writeup of all of this that, for various reasons, didn't work for Bloomberg, but I'm happy they ran with this at least. I may be writing up the longer version someplace, even if I only end up putting it on this blog.
With very few exceptions -- very notable exceptions, yes, which are not to be diminished but which skew more recently in our memory -- the Supreme Court has, historically, stood more often against progress than for it. We have been fortunate that that has not been the case in many important instances, but it is a matter of simple legal and historical fact that the court has lagged behind the political process in delivering justice rather than lead it.
The Court never ruled against slavery, did not deliver women the right to vote and took nearly a century to even begin to rule against Jim Crow. Even in instances where a single Supreme Court case stands paramount in the vindication of rights, such cases were only decided after years of people pushing our nation to get there, hard, in the social and political sphere. The Court often carries the ball over the goal line, but it's the people who marched it down the field.
This is not to say that we should not be worried about the Court's hard shift to the right. There will be considerable damage done to the course of human progress as a result of it in both the short term and long term. It is undeniably the case, however, that what the Court does will not be the final word.
It will not be the final word if people continue to fight, politically and socially, for justice and progress. Not if we push back against this madness by every means necessary, do whatever can be done to advance the cause of humanity and to beat back the cause of revanchism, nihilism and just plain evil.
Be sad today. Then get pissed. Then get to work. People who have faced far harder times than us have dealt with a society far less inclined to listen to their voices and far more inclined to do them violence as a means of silencing them. Yet they were not deterred. They did not wallow in defeatism. They kept fighting. And they won. Do them proud by doing the same.
Justice Kennedy is retiring, and he's going to be replaced by a much younger, more conservative justice who will do a great deal of damage in the very long time he serves on the bench. There's no way to sugarcoat that. Not at all. I will, however, make a few observations that you can give however much weight you'd like:
1. Despite Kennedy's past votes preserving victory in liberal causes, he has never been a sure thing, and each time there was much reason to believe he'd go one way before he went another. In light of that -- and in light of his track record in recent terms -- I had little faith that if, say, a Roe v. Wade challenge game up again that he'd vote to preserve abortion rights and I suspect he'd break right on host of other issues. Yes, it's bad that he's leaving and worse that we have Donald Trump nominating his replacement, but let's not pretend we're losing a liberal light of the judiciary, especially given that, five hours ago, he helped end organized labor as we know it in the Janus case.
2. A lot of people are saying the open Supreme Court seat will motivate Republican voters for the midterms this fall. I think that's overstated and possibly plain wrong. There are a lot of GOP voters who are strongly motivated by packing the courts with conservative judges, but those are also the sorts of GOP voters who vote in every election anyway. In this they're akin to that lady you know who works at the library, drives a Subaru, carries the NPR tote bag and can tell you the name of everyone on the ballot, right down to the third party candidate for that open school board seat three months before the general. Just as she's gonna be there voting for Democrats every damn time, the folks who get off on stripping people of their rights via the judicial system are already quite motivated, thank you very much. They're a big reason we're in the current mess.
3. While I have learned by now that there is nothing dumber, less-strategically-inclined and less effective than a Democratic political campaign, I suspect that the battle over the Supreme Court seat -- which Republicans will win, by the way, 100% -- could serve to help motivate Democratic voters who may not have otherwise come to the polls this November. This is especially the case if the seat is still open come November, but even if it is not, the sort of rhetoric with which Democrats should rightfully fill the air for the next couple of months over all of this should be the sort of things that motivate voters, especially young, normally less-than-fully engaged ones. People will vote if they think their very values and possibly even their very way of life is on the line. It very much is for the left. It is not for the right.
This is just my kneejerk reaction, mere minutes after Kennedy's announcement. Maybe I'm wrong, but I'd ask you: please, let's not be defeatist. There are elections to win this fall.
Tyranny does not arrive on our doorstep, fully formed, proclaiming itself as such. Evil does not wear a black hood and cape, monologuing about "the true power of darkness!" Such things come in increments. In drips and drabs, each drab appearing unremarkable due to its apparent innocuousness and each drip as normal and conventional, or at least described to us as such by our leaders or the media. Those who do evil are quite convinced that they are the good guys in their story and those who observe evil work extraordinarily hard, for a number of reasons, both consciously and unconsciously, to portray it as normal rather than aberrant.
We are, however, what we do not what we say we do. While there are many shades of gray in human behavior, that does not mean that there is no black and no white. Evil done under claim of righteousness is still evil.
As Hannah Arendt so compellingly observed in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Adolf Eichmann was an unremarkable man, not a mustache twirling villain. He told himself, every day, that what he was doing was fine because everyone around him acted as if it was fine, duly passing laws to validate his acts, obediently nodding their heads or turning their heads away as it was done. When he had misgivings about what he was doing he'd try to make up for it with a good act here or a good act there, telling himself that his balance sheet was, more or less in order. He did not believe he was evil because he never consciously chose to do evil as such and did not consider that there was a higher arbiter of morality than the people who passed the laws or gave him orders.
Morality does not work like that. We must examine that what we do and that which we support, vigilantly. We must ask ourselves more than "is what is happening legal?" or "is what is happening good for me?" We must ask, in broad terms, "is what I'm doing right, moral, ethical and just?" We must ask the same of our leaders and of that which is being done in our name.
For several years in the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy smeared anyone and everyone he could while conducting his hunt for communist sympathizers in the United States government. As he did so -- destroying lives and careers in the process -- he was afforded a level of respect and deference all Senators receive. His work, however unpopular, however unethical and however criticized by some, was treated as if it were legitimate, ordinary and within the normal parameters of his role as a member of Congress.
All of that changed on June 9, 1954. Not because McCarthy's colleagues did anything to stop him. Not because he broke a law or admitted to his overreach and his cruelty. It changed because, on that day, someone called him out for what he was.
His name was Joseph Welch, an attorney representing the United States Army, defending a junior attorney at his firm whom McCarthy put on blast for his own alleged communist sympathies. When McCarthy did this, Welch disposed with the usual behavior an attorney before a Senate committee is expected to display and called out McCarthy directly, with his now famous words, "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
Those words marked a turning point. The point after which McCarthy's excesses and overreach would no longer be tolerated. The point where his work and his words were no longer seen as an acceptable part of political discourse and debate but were, quite correctly, seen as aberrant and unacceptable within the context of a liberal democracy. McCarthy's deplorable career and his deplorable work effectively ended that day. They ended because someone decided that they could not be tolerated and did something that was outside the bounds of what, in the moment, was expected. They ended because Joseph Welch disposed with deference and decorum. In short, he was uncivil.
Over the weekend, President Trump's press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was dining at the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia. Multiple members of the restaurant's staff told the owner that they objected to the administration’s recent actions leading to the separation of children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border and asked the owner to refuse Sanders' party service. The owner politely asked Ms. Sanders to leave and she left. The restaurant owner explained her reasoning to reporters. It was not about a mere, narrow political disagreement as such. It was a matter of ethics and morals and her and her staff's belief that the Trump administration had crossed a line into the "inhumane and unethical."
Not surprisingly, the matter has blown up into a huge controversy, with conservatives and Trump supporters likening it to Jim Crow-era discrimination and opponents casting it as a matter of conscience. Also, not surprisingly, much of the political establishment has sought to cast it in terms of "civility" and a failure of people to agreeably disagree about the matters of the day.
It's expected that the partisans would read this or any other controversy in a way that casts themselves as hero/victim, but the putatively neutral arbiters focusing on the lack of "civility" here as the real problem are the ones who truly get this wrong.
As Joseph Welch demonstrated, there comes a time when it is necessary to step out of one's expected, ordinary mode of behavior and say "no, this is not normal, this is not acceptable, and I refuse to behave as if it were." A time when we are not witnessing two sides debating in good faith regarding the correct path of the nation at which point we should no longer afford one of those sides the deference they expect. A time when we must speak up and make clear that their behavior and their views are not within the normal bounds of reasonableness and that they are not entitled to a seat at the table, figuratively or literally.
Saying such a thing tends to bother people because we've all been taught that we are all entitled to hold whatever political views and carry out whatever political acts we desire. And, of course, we are. We have come to assume, however, at least implicitly, that our right to do so carries with it an obligation of others to respect our political views and meet them head-on in good faith debate. That is simply not the case.
However shocking it may be for people to hear it, there is a finite spectrum of acceptable political values in this society. It's a wide spectrum in this country -- wider than in almost any other society in human history, I reckon -- but it is finite. We would not and should not accept into polite society someone who advocates for legalized murder, slavery, rape and genocide, for extreme example. Such people would not be given an editorial in a respectable newspaper or a seat at a town meeting and, I would hope, we would not allow such people into our homes or places of business. If you take issue with that, this is probably a good time to stop reading, but I presume most folks don't take issue with that. The point is, there is a line that one can cross where one is not merely espousing an "alternate viewpoint" which should be respected and at which point they are not entitled to deference and civility, even if there are still laws which prevent us from knocking them over the head with a well-seasoned cast iron skillet.
But surely there is a point before "legalized murder, slavery, rape and genocide" when such people can be and should be shunned, right? There is a spot on the political spectrum that is more extreme than "this person and I disagree" and less extreme than "this person literally wants me and everyone I love to be murdered" where it's quite alright to call them out as pariahs and refuse to accept them as merely one voice in grand political discourse, no? I sure hope so, because people who truly want to legalize murder, slavery, rape and genocide are probably gonna start a bit smaller than that. Slides into tyranny are almost always incremental. As such, it's best to nip such impulses in the bud.
We have a habit of painting our political adversaries as extremists, even when they are not particularly extreme, so there is always going to be a "you cried wolf" element to this sort of business. The fact is, though, we are now being ruled by extremists. I'm not talking about people of a certain political persuasion finding themselves temporarily ruled by folks of a different political party. That's a feature of our system, not a bug, and if you can't handle that you've got your own set of problems. No, I'm talking about extremism in the form of an administration, its enablers in Congress and its supporters around the country which hold no regard for basic liberal democratic values which both political parties in our country have long claimed to cherish.
What follows are not political opinions. They are basic, observable and incontrovertible facts regarding the Trump administration which should offend both Democrats and Republicans alike:
As a matter of simple fact, these are all acts and positions which are beyond the pale and which we have long considered to be utterly unacceptable in civilized American society. Under no circumstances are people required to respect it or afford it a place in the arena of normal, civilized political discourse. Under no circumstances are we required to be "civil" in the face of this base and reprehensible conduct by these reprehensible people.
The folks who own the Red Hen embodied this notion when they denied service to a key member of Trump's political and propaganda machine. Their act of incivility is already being overblown, of course, because denial of service in a restaurant carries a lot of historic and symbolic value, but it was the small way in which the folks at that restaurant had any power to lodge a protest against acts and views which fly in the face of the values of a liberal democracy. It was a limited act within the world they inhabit but which made it clear where they stand and what they stand for.
Those of us who do not own restaurants can and should react similarly. That does not necessarily mean denying people service or making grand gestures -- people should do what feels natural and right to them in any given moment rather than adhere to some sort of proscribed campaign -- but it does mean, like Joseph Welch before us, we should call out indecency when we see it and demand leaders and institutions which are moral, ethical and just, calls for civility be damned.
We must do so even if most people are inclined to pretend as if things are perfectly normal when they most assuredly are not. Perhaps especially so.
The news that Trump is ordering an end to family separations at the border is good. It's a limited act -- he's still enforcing an unconscionable "zero tolerance" policy against people seeking asylum and will now likely seek merely to prosecute and incarcerate children with their parents -- but it is a step back from the brink and any step back in this madness is something. There will almost certainly be devils within the details of his order -- he is Donald Trump and he is incapable of anything honest, straightforward and in good faith -- but it is a sign of limited surrender, even if temporary, on the specific point of family separation.
The child separation policy, it should be noted, was calculated to (a) intimidate and terrorize immigrants; and to (b) create a needless crisis through which he endeavored to obtain legislative concessions furthering his xenophobic anti-immigrant agenda. It's also clear that Republicans were all too eager to play along with Trump, attempting to use the cover of this crisis as a means of ramming through such legislation all while making a public case that, if Democrats did not sign on, they were not truly interested in addressing immigrants' plight. It was cynical and disingenuous theater at best. In my view it was an attempt at appeasement of government-implemented terrorism. However you describe it, it was shameful.
This order does not end the matter, of course. For one thing -- the most important thing -- thousands of children have been taken from their parents already, some of whom have been whisked thousands of miles from their families, many of whom may never be seen again by their mothers and fathers. Significant damage has already been done to them, psychologically and otherwise. That damage will not be fixed by the issuance of an order. It will likely last years. In some cases it will last forever.
It will also not end Trump's efforts to implement his anti-immigrant agenda. He will continue to seek to deprive immigrants, both those already here and those seeking to come here, of legal rights. He will still try to degrade, dehumanize and demonize them for political gain. He will still seek to build his pointless wall. On this front he should be fought at every turn by any and all legal, political and legislative means necessary. Even if the ethics of child separation are not complicated, the business of forging immigration policy is not easy business, and in no way should Trump be allowed to be the only voice speaking on the matter.
What he can no longer do, however -- and what he should not be allowed to do again -- is to manufacture and leverage a humanitarian crisis to to aid in those ends, using screaming children as his bargaining chips. That he has already done so is and will long stand as one of the most immoral and depraved acts undertaken by the United States in recent memory and those responsible for devising the plan, implementing it and defending it should be held to account.
We are ripping children from the arms of their parents and throwing them into cages. This is not hyperbole. It is literally happening. Border patrol agents are mocking the children as they scream for their mothers and fathers.
Anyone attempting to rationalize what we are doing to these children at the border -- or engaging in some rear-guard political spin to diminish just how truly awful it is in order to put its stink on their political enemies -- rather than simply demand that it be ended is a garbage person. They are morally and ethically corrupt. There is no other way to put it.
I don't say things like that very often. I argue with people about politics every day, almost always using the "argue the point, not the person" stuff I was trained to do. I won't do that here. This is a moral test. It should be a pretty goddamn easy one to pass too. Not that many aren't gleefully failing it.
There is nothing simpler than saying "taking kids from their parents and locking them up in cages is wrong." It's the easiest thing in the world. That's the case even if you have strong feelings about immigration and border security. People can negotiate about any topic, but not when one side is, quite literally, holding children hostage.
If you can't do that, I'm sorry, you're sick. You lack basic human empathy. Your moral compass is broken and I hope to God you find a way to fix it soon.
I am just as intrigued by autonomous vehicles as the next guy. Everything I've read about them suggests that they'll relieve congestion and improve safety, and I both hope and believe that to be true. Our roads are clogged and anything to unclog them -- and to improve efficiency, confer environmental benefits and cost savings compared to the current shape of our car-obsessed culture -- would be a good thing.
But while it's one thing to view autonomous vehicles as replacements for non-autonomous vehicles on existing roadways, it's another thing altogether to say that we should literally rip up existing mass transit tracks and fill the tunnels with them.
Oh yes, someone is saying that. Peter Wayner in The Atlantic, writing about how, rather than fix New York's aging, overtaxed and increasingly unreliable subway system, we replace it with autonomous vehicles:
The New York City subway is a miracle, especially at 3 a.m. on a Friday night. But the system is also falling apart, and it’s going to cost billions to keep the old trains running: $19 billion, at least according to one estimate from city planners. The time has come to give up on the 19th-century idea of public transportation, and leap for the autonomous future . . .
I'm less interested in the specific pros and cons of such a plan -- hey, we put a man on the moon, so why not a driverless Uber underneath Sixth Avenue? -- than I am in the assumptions and preferences which underlie it.
The premise of this idea -- one which has been astoundingly popular across the political spectrum over the past several decades -- is that it's simply unreasonable to expect our society to build and maintain great public works. That taxes are inherently bad and that raising them to provide goods and services for the well being of people is simply out of the question. It assumes, more specifically, that we simply cannot or should not fix New York's subway system because it's too hard. Too expensive. Not sexy. "Yes, the subway has been one of the marvels of the industrialized world for over a century," the article basically argues, "but it'll cost money and require work to maintain it so let's go with Project: Jetsons."
It's so very sad to see such a mindset. One which doesn't even attempt to push back, not even a little, against the mindless "government bad, taxes bad, private sector good" dogma which has permeated public discourse since the 1980s. One that completely ignores not just the immediate and obvious benefits of public transit, but which doesn't even begin to comprehend the second, third and fourth-order impacts public transit has had, particularly in New York. The city, as we know it, would not exist without the subway system. One would think that grappling with that fact would be required before one talks about replacing it with a bunch of Teslas in a tube.
It's also worth noting that this cars-on-the-7-line idea is intended to be operated by private companies on a for-profit basis. The article talks about how such an idea would take New York back to its roots, noting that the subway system was once a patchwork of private companies (the IRT and BMT, etc.) and public entities (the city-run IND) running competing lines. It might be useful for the author to note, however, that that system ended in the 1940s, with the city taking over and eventually creating a public transit authority to run it all, because the private companies had little interest in cooperating or serving the public effectively. Put simply: private ownership of public transit simply didn't work.
Any transit idea, however fun and futuristic it sounds, that does not appreciate the shortcomings private sector solutions have historically had when attempting to confront large scale public needs is fatally flawed. Any plan which does not appreciate the negative social, economic and even democratic impacts of a private, profit-driven system organized around individually-tailored and custom-priced trips, as opposed to moving masses of people along common corridors, is either hopelessly naive or intentionally tailored to sew inequality.
Most countries treat mass transit systems as national assets. They openly acknowledge the fact that public works require public investment in the form of tax dollars in order to deliver goods people want and need. They do not apologize for it, fetishize private investment or bend over backwards to invent crazy new systems from whole cloth when a near-perfect model -- time-tested and, however worse for wear these days, historically reliable -- is already in place. They do not act like it is a bad thing for people, through governmental authority, to build things via collective action. They recognize that public works are not, first and foremost, aimed at profit-generation, and for that reason they cannot, by definition, be the responsibility of those in the business, first and foremost, of profit-creation. For that reason, their transit systems tend to be far more useful and far better run than ours do.
We should fix the existing subways and build new ones where they are needed. We should build on what has worked in the past and fix that which is not working now. We must dispense with the idea that we can somehow disrupt our way out of having to pay for, build and maintain the sorts of large-scale public works which benefit society via public means.
We must, above all else, acknowledge that when it comes to building a civilization, there are no shortcuts.
Anthony Bourdain died today.
Unlike so many self-styled literary and entertainment industry badasses, there was simple skill, craft and humanity underlying the attitude, which he would freely allow to show. The former without the latter -- and without self-awareness-- is empty. Whatever he was doing to project that bad boy persona was immediately set aside when he got down to work writing about or chronicling a place, a people, a cuisine or whatever it was he was interested in at the moment.
In losing Anthony Bourdain, we didn't lose a "celebrity chef" or a "travel show host." We lost an insightful, empathetic and humane chronicler of the human condition. A man who could have so easily been a complacent, thrill-seeking, luxury-living, globetrotting celebrity but chose to be something more. He was an anthropologist who discarded dispassionate observation in order to advocate for the best in humanity, paying special attention to the vulnerable, the exploited and the overlooked.
Last year Bourdain went to West Virginia for an episode of his show, "Parts Unknown." In the space of one hour he did a better job of capturing my home state than a thousand poverty porn tourist journalists with pre-written stories parachuting in from coastal publications have ever done. It was typical of his work. He never went with the easy or expected narratives, even if doing so would've saved him a lot of work. Probably because he knew that those easy narratives obscured truths, perpetuated lies and, unwittingly or otherwise, served to work injustices, both large and small.
I embedded that episode below. You should watch it. If he ever went someplace special or interesting or unknown to you, you should watch that too.
My wife and I just got back from nine days in England. It was our honeymoon, delayed a year for various reasons, but coinciding with our first anniversary. I was going to write up a proper travelogue, but I'm too lazy to craft narratives, transitions and connections into something approaching passable prose, so I'm just going to barf out a list of stuff that happened and stuff I observed. Of course, it's gonna end up being longer than a travelogue would've been, but sometimes when you start barfing, you just can't stop.
Click through via that "Read More" button to the lower right if you're into that sort of thing.
Most people in the United States haven't heard of James, and those who have heard of them know them primarily through a surprise college radio hit they had with the song "Laid" back in 1993, later used in the "American Pie" movies. They're far more than a one-hit-wonder, however.
James has put out 13 studio albums with a 14th on the way in August. They've had scads of hits and top-selling albums on the UK charts and a fervent following there, in Europe and in Latin America. A seven-year hiatus in the early-to-mid 2000s notwithstanding, they have been and remain a working band and, unlike a lot of their contemporaries, they remain creatively vital. They put out a new EP and released a couple of songs from the new record a little over a week ago. Some of 'em are bangers.
My wife Allison has been a James fan for 20 years or so, has met the band, has friends she's met through James fandom around the world and has seen them live both in the U.K. and in America. We recently took a trip to the U.K., primarily for our honeymoon/first anniversary -- here's a fairly massive travelogue about the vacation -- but also to go see three James shows on a short tour they did of small venues in small towns across England, Scotland and Wales. As a super fan, Allison would've found a way to see them again eventually, with or without me, but this trip was my first time seeing them live. The first show, in Warrington, was the best show I've ever seen. The other two, in Blackburn and Halifax, were right up there. I'll spare you detailed reviews, but suffice it to say I enjoyed the hell out of myself.
Until I met Allison in late 2011, I was one of those people who didn't know much more about James than "Laid." In the past six and a half years they have become my favorite band. Part of that is a function of "guy meets girl who turns him on to some different music and the association sparks something," but there's more than that going on for me.
As we grew up and matured, men my age were never rewarded for feeling. The benefits of feigning indifference and affecting a pose of ironic and cynical detachment, on the other hand, were considerable.
As I entered adulthood, what one genuinely felt about anyone or anything was less important than the fact that people understood that one liked the right someones and somethings. The Gen-X-approved canon of music, movies, books, fashions, attitudes and personalities which were accompanied by a heaping amount of snobbery directed at those who did not share such tastes. For 1990s 20 or 30-somethings, one was living one’s best life to the extent one made it appear as if one’s life was directed by Quentin Tarantino, released on Matador records and written by David Foster Wallace. Those who did not fall into those general parameters were judged and judged harshly. Rob, from "High Fidelity" was a role model. It escaped us all, of course, that Rob was an emotionally-stunted jackass.
On a personal level, the archetypical Gen-X man exuded the sense that things were humming along just fine at all times and, if they were not, it was never much discussed. Staying in a narrow band of critically-approved tastes went hand-in-hand with portraying a nearly unshakable equanimity. Just as liking the wrong music risked judgment, deviating from a certain personal stance -- showing vulnerability and uncertainty -- was to invite uncomfortable personal conversation and scrutiny for which none of us were prepared.
Ironically, this highly regimented emotion-denying existence and self-imposed conformity was considered a sign of "authenticity."
Not that it felt phony or contrived. The cultivation and maintenance of the quintessential 1990s Gen-X male identity felt organic in the moment. The life I personally constructed around this larger ethos came to me naturally. I went to college, got married, began my career and had children, not just portraying every life event as if it were scripted and thus unremarkable, but feeling as if they were so. I was not some robot — there was happiness, sadness, joy, sorrow and confusion as life unfolded — but those were deviations from the cooler-than-the-room course one’s life was expected to take. Those deviations were expected to be temporary and were expected to right themselves over time.
In hindsight it’s no surprise that everything came crumbling down for me in the space of a few years. That the contradictions and self-denial my career presented and required of me were too great to ignore forever. That the problems in my first marriage were features, not bugs. That the strong and positive emotions inspired by fatherhood and by aging did not jibe with my well-cultivated sense of ironic detachment. I did my best to skate past the remarkable highs and the nearly unendurable lows of life with the help of just the right soundtrack, just the right wardrobe and enough culturally acceptable distractions to make it seem like everything was under control, but it wasn’t sustainable and never could have been.
I was in a very dark place when I met Allison and she knew it. Among the many things she did to help me get through that bad time was to play play me some James stuff.
The first song she played for me was "Tomorrow." The sentiment and structure of that song is pretty obvious and straightforward -- the singer once introduced it as a song he wrote "to keep a friend from jumping off a roof" -- but when you're emotionally stunted and emotionally raw, you need something straightforward like that. Having wallowed in enough dark, depressing music and sad bastard jams over the previous few months, "Tomorrow" was a breath of fresh air. It was the first music I had listened to in a while which suggested to me that things can and will get better rather than give me permission to embrace darkness and depression.
From there I began to listen to some other James stuff and I liked what I heard. While, critically speaking, one can slot them in with a lot of their Madchester and Britpop contemporaries, they don't fit in terribly neatly. They have been described by some critics as the "outcasts" or the "freaks and geeks" of that scene. I get that. They opened for the Smiths once upon a time, played with New Order and traveled in the same circles as The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and all of those wonderful bands, but unlike a lot of their contemporaries they mined veins of positivity and non-conformity not typically covered in 1990s rock. Maybe this explains why they never broke big in an America which, at the time, was into far darker and sludgier sounds. I'm no music critic and I can't be totally sure about that, but I do know that I really needed to hear some positive, even anthemic music in late 2011 and James delivered.
The immediate need to pull myself out of a funk soon passed, but I have returned to James pretty frequently since that time, listening to their music both old and new. Doing so has helped address the larger problems associated with that emotionally-stunted world view of the typical 1990s Gen-X man I described before.
Allowing myself to feel things -- to like things, even if they're not cool things, without apology, excuse or shame, and to be fearless in doing so -- has been critical to my mental and emotional health and personal development over the past several years. It'd be an overstatement to say that getting into some band from Manchester has been the primary reason I've been able to do that, of course. Therapy, emotional reflection and support from and good examples set by loved ones has been far more important. But given that pop culture played a big hand in messing me and my contemporaries up in the first place, listening to a band that embodies that more open and positive ethos certainly helps.
When you're trying to grow as a person, you need to shed your skin. To strip away your protection. To laugh at the wonder of it all. To cry at the sadness of the world. To dip on in, to leave your bones, leave your skin, leave your past, leave your craft and leave your suffering heart.
Or so I'm told.
UPDATE: If you don't know that much about James, I made a playlist of my favorite songs. They may be too obvious for serious James fans, but it's a good introduction to the band.
This evening I did a segment on BBC World News about today's announcement that the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox will play a two-game series in London next year. They allowed me on the air even though I spent most of the day trafficking in the silliest British stereotypes and mocking the monarchy.
Come for me talking about baseball, stay for the Shrek Funko Pop! figurine I had forgotten that my children put on my mantlepiece.
Saturday was Karl Marx' 200th birthday. I hope your party went well. Hope you brought enough cake for everyone, making sure to cut it into equal-sized pieces. If you took too big a piece, I hope someone expropriated it from you.
I make a lot of tongue-mostly-in-cheek Marx and communism jokes. I also own a decent amount of commie kitsch artwork and stuff like that. I have since I was a teenager and didn't know my ass from my elbow when it came to history, economics or political philosophy.
My taste for such things developed as a reaction to growing up in Reagan's America. I am not some sort of revolutionary or iconoclast, and while I'm something of a non-conformist, there is more about me and my life that is unremarkable in that regard than I usually care to admit. Still, when most of America zigged toward materialism and the glorification of business and capitalism in the 1980s, I zagged. It didn't hurt that my father was a government employee and my relatives and the parents of most of my friends were union workers. The cultural zeitgeist of the 1980s tried to tell me that they were what's wrong with America, that simply did not compute, nor has it ever, and thus you get a kid like I was, playing around with subversive ideas even if I didn't understand them.
In college I actually took the time to study history, economics and political philosophy, getting my degree in the latter category. In those courses I read plenty of Marx, Hegel, Smith, Mill, Keynes, Rawls, Weber, Kant and a bunch of other guys. Because I was short-sighted and more influenced by that 1980s materialism than I let on, I ended up going to law school and thus spent a good 14 years zigging back into the glorification of business and capitalism I had zagged away from when I was younger, but I eventually remembered what I cared about and started doing more fulfilling things. Despite the passage of time and a far more relaxed reading regimen than that which I undertook 25 years ago, I feel like I still know enough about all of that political philosophy to at least hold my own when it comes up. Despite some pretty big changes in my life over the past couple of decades, I think I'm more comfortable with where I now stand politically than I ever was before.
There's still something of that high school contrarian in me, though. I often joke that I'm not a Marxist, but I play one on the Internet. There's more than a little bit of truth to that. Despite what people with whom I argue say about me, I'm not a Marxist or a communist. I lean pretty hard to the left and, when I envision an ideal way to set up society it contains a lot more public ownership and regulation than what's viewed as desirable by most folks running things today, but I'm not an actual commie. When I cite Marx or someone like him in an argument or a tweet it's usually for rhetorical purposes or, sometimes, because I'm just goofing around.
It's much easier to pretend to be a Marxist in modern America than to actually be one, of course, for reasons that have very little to do with Marxism itself.
Political philosophies don't have actual public relations firms working for them, but if Marxism did have one it sure as hell did a bad job. Of course, even the best P.R. guy would have a hard time spinning that whole "multiple tyrannical regimes killing millions while claiming to follow your teachings" thing. There isn't a Powerpoint deck or Harry & David gift box that can change a lot of minds about that. It's something that's rather hard to be massaged, as they say.
There is a technically correct defense of Marxism that notes how, actually, those murderous regimes weren't truly practicing Marxism, but you're not gonna win that argument with most people. Shouting "scoreboard" isn't always an intellectually honest way to win an argument, but it sure is a damn effective way of ending one. Leave your "actually, the Soviets weren't Marxists" argument alone, comrade. It's not gonna go well for you in most contexts.
Maybe an even tougher problem for the Marxist P.R. Firm is the fact that, irrespective of the mass murders, Marx's central thesis was discredited in the eyes of most people by events on the ground for a long damn time.
For the bulk of the living memory of the people running things today -- and for the living memory of the parents and teachers of nearly everyone else -- the very foundation of Marxist observation wasn't panning out and seemed hopelessly out of touch with reality. Part of this was because of intentional reforms made to the capitalist system during the Depression and in the postwar period. Stuff like the success of the labor movement and subsequent pro-worker regulations and the advancement of civil rights improved the lives of the folks who Marx predicted would rise up in revolution. Accidents of history helped too, such as, you know, a massive global war decimating the planet, paving the way for insane economic growth in the parts of the world that didn't get bombed to bits. America in the postwar period was a place of so much abundance that the proletariat's chains weren't nearly as uncomfortable as Marx predicted they would be.
Between the murderous tyranny of those waving Marx' banner and the postwar progress in countries like the U.S., it was completely understandable why two or three generations of Americans dismissed Marx completely. Given what could be seen with one's own two eyes, what possible reason would there be to take anything but a derisive look at this seemingly discredited, hirsute radical? It's hard to sell any kind of revolution in that environment.
I think it's fair to say, though, that the America of 1945-1980 was a historical anomaly. The progress of that time, measured in terms of growing economic and social equality and the improving wages and conditions for workers, is the historical exception, not the rule. Since the 1980s the progress we witnessed in that period has been slowed and, in some cases, reversed. Indeed, one of our two major political parties sees reversing that postwar progress as its mission. As a result, we are falling into patterns that have historically persisted.
As was the case in Marx's time (and most other times) a very small number of people own and control most things. Conditions and compensation for workers are degrading. Even people's health and life expectancy is degrading. This is talked about as a crisis -- and and it is a crisis -- but it's not unprecedented. Historically speaking it's merely reversion to the mean. As someone once said, history repeats itself. I'll leave it to the drama critics to decide if its doing so now is tragedy or farce.
Which brings us back to Karl Marx. As a philosopher who sought to put thought into action -- he did not think of himself as some mere thinker; he truly aspired to be a revolutionary -- he was obviously lacking. As Lennon (not Lenin) put it, "we all wanna see the plan." Marx didn't have anything approaching a specific one, those who took up his mantle had some horrifying ones and, as such, we can't took to either Marx or to his followers for instructions on how to set up a good and just society. I am a lot of things, but one of those things is a pragmatist, and this is why I don't call myself a Marxist or a communist. Proof-of-concept matters to me.
That does not, however, mean that we should ignore Marx. His observations about the current capitalist order being thought of by its proponents as inevitable (note: it's not), the flaws and injustices which come with that order (note: there are many), and the need for that order to be reorganized or, at the very least substantially reformed for the good of humanity (note: it is great), are worthy and instructive.
We must contend with those questions. We must ask ourselves whether current conditions are just and optimal and, if not, how they can be improved. To do so, we are obligated to critique capitalism and to rein in its excesses rather than pretend that the capitalist system as currently constructed was ordained by God Almighty and that questioning it is heresy or treason. If it weirds you out to call those observations, critiques and any subsequent reform derived therefrom Marxism, fine, don't call it Marxism. If it weirds you out to even read Karl Marx, well, don't read him (note: Das Kapital is a boring slog, but The Communist Manifesto is a banger). As a child of the Cold War, I get it: commies are bad and evil and even acknowledging their existence makes Lady Liberty cry.
But unless you look at the current economic, social and humanitarian conditions that persist and say "This is great! This is absolutely perfect and we mustn't change a thing!," you must contend with and seek to fix capitalism's flaws. Marx did that first and a lot of folks who are seeking to do that now -- hopefully to more humane and practical effect -- have followed that path.
That may not justify you putting on a fake beard, going to Denny's and asking for a free meal in honor of Marx's birthday, but it does mean you can't dismiss him or pretend that he and his ideas never existed.
In today's Washington Post Jonathan Greenberg writes about how Donald Trump lied his way onto the Forbes' 400 list of the wealthiest Americans back in the early 1980s. It's an amazing story, which illustrates just how insecure, desperate and pathological Trump truly is. It reminds us that, then as now, he possessed no shame whatsoever and would stop at nothing to portray himself as wealthy and powerful, going so far as to disguise his voice and to pretend to be another person in order to appear as something he was not.
While most people are sharing and reacting to that story based on the bald-faced lies Trump told and the audacious things he did in order to make Forbes' list, the story tells a larger and, in my mind, more significant story. It's a story about journalism and American values and about how a certain failure and bankruptcy in both of those things led us to where we are today.
Malcolm Forbes came up with the idea of the Forbes 400 in 1982. The idea was to personalize wealth after decades in which faceless corporate conglomerates dominated the story of American business. Given the circles in which Malcolm Forbes traveled, his personal extravagance and his obvious love of fame and celebrity, it's not surprising that there was more going on here than the mere reporting about powerful business figures.
The Forbes 400 was about elevating and celebrating the wealthy -- many of whom were not, actually, business figures but, rather, heirs -- simply because they were wealthy. It was a gossipy, clickbaity listicle for the pre-Internet age. We all know what MegaCorp Consolidated owns and what it does, but who is its biggest shareholder? How is he special? What makes him tick? More importantly, what does he own? What does he wear, eat, drink, drive and fly? The Forbes 400 constituted an implicit argument for the social value of wealth for its own sake. An argument which kicked off or, at the very least, worked in tandem with the greed-is-good, "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" social and cultural forces ascendent in 1980s America.
It was this culture which gave us Donald Trump. Donald Trump became president because he was famous. He became famous because he was portrayed as rich. He was portrayed as rich because, in the early 1980s, there was a big cultural push -- much larger than Donald Trump -- to celebrate the rich simply for their status of being rich. If that culture did not exist, there would have been no Forbes 400 for Trump to lie to get on to and if there was no Forbes 400, and the culture which surrounded it, it's an open question whether anyone outside of the New York real estate world would've ever heard about Donald Trump. Donald Trump did not lie his way to the presidency on his own. He had a lot of help.
The elevation of the rich for their own sake in the 1980s was not new, of course. Back in the Gilded Age the robber barons were larger-than-life figures, permeating the culture far beyond the business pages. In the Great Depression the names of the wealthy could be found in song lyrics and constituted instantly recognizable references in movies, on stage and on the radio. This elevation of the rich likewise did not stop with the death of Malcolm Forbes and the end of the go-go 1980s. To see how this celebrity-style reporting on the rich and powerful still works, one only need look at the often uncritical coverage of figures like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and, more broadly, the culture of Silicon Valley as something separate, apart and, somehow, more noble and visionary than the mere businessmen and women that they are.
All of which is to say that, however much fun it is to point and laugh at the prospect of a 36-year-old Donald Trump pretending to be something he wasn't, that's not really the big takeaway from today's piece in the Washington Post. We know Trump is a pathological liar and those of us who paid attention to him before he got into politics have known this for years.
The more important questions raised by that article are how and why Trump was given the platform from which to tell his lies in the first place? Who will be the next to take advantage of America's sick and misguided fascination with wealth for its own sake to ascend to a position for which he is clearly unqualified? Finally, when will the media, which utterly failed to push back against the idea that greed is good in the 1980s and has continued to fail in this regard each and every time that ethos has been repackaged for a new era, begin to ask itself why the wealthy are celebrated and considered newsworthy in and of themselves?
Once when I was a little boy, a lightbulb burned out in a lamp in our house. As my dad changed the lightbulb I asked him why they don't make lightbulbs that last forever. He said, "if they did that, the people who make lightbulbs wouldn't make any money."
I didn't think too hard about that answer at the time, but I thought about it right after I read this story from Tae Kim at CNBC, about something a Goldman Sachs analyst wrote in a report to biotech company executives last week.
The report, entitled "The Genome Revolution," asks, "is curing patients a sustainable business model?" The answer is no, at least not in the long run:
"The potential to deliver 'one shot cures' is one of the most attractive aspects of gene therapy, genetically-engineered cell therapy and gene editing. However, such treatments offer a very different outlook with regard to recurring revenue versus chronic therapies. While this proposition carries tremendous value for patients and society, it could represent a challenge for genome medicine developers looking for sustained cash flow."
"People would love a lightbulb that lasts forever," the report basically says, "and it would be great for society. But you would make less money if you made one of those." Except, instead of lightbulbs, it's cures for hepatitis of diabetes or what have you. The report goes on to outline ways these companies could make more money if they focus on chronic therapies rather then cures, not because it's better for the world, but because it's better for the bottom line.
The report hit the news the other day and since then I've seen a good amount of outrage about it on Twitter. It seems perverse to many that an analyst from an investment bank would tell biotech company executives that curing diseases is not as good for "sustained cash flow" as treating a recurring stream of customers who never are cured but always need expensive medical products.
Such outrage is misplaced. Or at least not sufficiently placed. We should not merely or even primarily be outraged at the Goldman Sachs analyst. What he said is completely true. That doesn't get him off the hook, of course, as "I was just doing what I was asked to do" is not, last I checked, a "get out of morality free" card, but that's not the end of the discussion. What's outrageous is that we willingly accept a medical system in which what he wrote in that report can be completely true. One in which "cash flow" rather than "tremendous value for patients and society" is the priority and in which those two things are at odds.
The medical establishment -- including providers, the pharmaceutical industry and biotech firms -- has long been caught in a fundamental dilemma between the need to cure and treat the sick and the pursuit of market-based wealth. These actors have improved and extended the life for millions of people through their products and services, yet the need to make entrepreneurial decisions is frequently at odds with the advancement of public health, particularly the health of the poor. Striking a balance between those allegedly equal imperatives is why biotech firms do things like hire Goldman Sachs analysts to tell them what to do. Well, that and putting the hard, moral and ethical calculations inherent in this dilemma in someone else's hands.
Motives aside, the lines of debate on this tend to break down between (a) pro-market actors arguing that, if not for the profit motive, biotech firms and pharmaceutical companies would not research and develop lifesaving cures and drugs; and (b) those who find profiting off of the lives and health of others to be immoral on the other. The former group tends to believe in the market like the devout believe in a god, believing that it will provide all that we need if we merely have sufficient faith. The latter group is often naive about what, exactly, motivates human beings to do anything.
The market is not just, of course. It creates "winners" and for there to be "winners" there must be "losers." In the context of people's lives and health, the existence of "losers" is obscene. Likewise, most people are not inherently altruistic. Depending on people to simply do the right thing, however noble, is misguided.
Typically at this point in the discussion someone will bring up Jonas Salk, who famously eschewed patenting the polio vaccine despite the fact he could have made billions of dollars if he had. When asked why he did this, Salk famously said that "the people" owned the patent and asked, rhetorically, "would you patent the sun?” Salk truly believed that, by the way. He considered his work to be a "moral commitment" -- his words -- and devoted the rest of his life to trying to make the world a better and healthier place when he could've spent it sitting on boards, hitting the lecture circuit and raking in boatloads of cash. I tend to think he's the exception, not the rule, when it comes to this sort of thinking.
Either way, it did not require someone as altruistic as Salk was for the polio vaccine to be developed. Salk's research, after all, was not free. It was funded by donations from The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis -- the March of Dimes -- which represented a massive mobilization of the public, spurred on strongly by FDR and the federal government. Rather than R&D losses willingly taken in the hopes of future profits to help recoup those costs, the polio vaccine was financed on the front end by hundreds of millions of donations. As I said, Salk truly was an altruist, but it's also the case that if he had patented the vaccine, he'd be double-dipping in a sense. The public, in large part, had already paid for it, the work was done and then society benefitted, massively.
I will not pretend to have all of the answers about how to best structure our medical and public health system. I appreciate that innovators require incentives and funding to innovate and that depending on altruism to solve society's problems is unrealistic. I do not believe, however, that Goldman Sachs analysts are privy to the only means by which innovators can innovate and I do not believe that the market is as omnipotent as Goldman Sachs analysts believe, especially when it comes to public health, where the ultimate rewards are not and should not be financial ones.
Don't believe people when they tell you that taking the profit motive away from science that science will cease to exist. Don't believe them when they tell you that the market will provide optimal outcomes. We have plenty of counterexamples to both of these spurious assertions and we can do better than we are doing to deliver the goods which benefit humanity.
It is being reported this morning that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is not going to run for reelection. I am not surprised in the least.
The modern, allegedly mainstream GOP has never had any interest in leading or governing. Guys like Paul Ryan and the hundreds of cut-rate Reaganites he leads sought power to enrich their wealthy friends and benefactors with ruinous fiscal policy and are now getting out before being held accountable, after which they will no doubt enrich themselves with lobbying or media gigs.
The tell: they never once ran on their actual agenda. Since the day after the 2009 inauguration they ran against ridiculous caricatures of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi and then ran against an even more ridiculous caricature of Hillary Clinton and whatever other liberal boogeymen they could conjure. Now that they have a record of being the party in power, they're quitting rather than face the wrath of voters.
Go back and study the campaigns of guys like Ryan and other GOP leaders and try to find examples of them promising to do what they actually did this past year or so. Find the speeches and ads in which they promised to slash taxes for the wealthy, deprive people of health care, threaten popular social services and eviscerate health, safety and environmental regulations while exploding the deficit and national debt in the manner in which they've done. Maybe you'll find some red meat along those lines to small audiences of party loyalists and donors, but I submit that you will find no examples of guys like Paul Ryan offering details of what would become the American Health Care Act they tried to ram through last year or the tax plan they did, in fact, ram through. You will find ZERO mention of what their 2017-18 legislative agenda has actually done to the budget. Indeed, they ran hard against Democrats on exactly those grounds.
There's a reason for that, of course. Outside of conservative think tanks, Wall Street investment banks and a narrow class of ultra-wealthy people, there is no constituency in this country for slashing the taxes of millionaires, eviscerating the regulatory framework of our nation and taking services away from the poor and middle class. None. People don't want it. There's ample proof of this.
Americans do not want to giveaways to the wealthy, they want investments in the country and in its people. They know that government is often inefficient and wasteful, but they do not consider it their mortal enemy and do not want representatives who have no ideas apart from starving it and the people it serves.
That's exactly what Paul Ryan did as Speaker. And now he's quitting before being held accountable for it. That's no accident. It's by design.