If there's one thing people in Central Ohio know a lot about, it's football. This is Buckeye Country, after all, and we've seen a lot of winning football over the years.
While not everyone around here may be as knowledgable as Urban Meyer when it comes to this stuff, we know a winner and a loser when we see one. The easiest way to spot a loser is to look at the quarterback and see if he has even half a clue. If he looks like he hasn't been given a good game plan, that's trouble. If he looks so lost out there that he begins to look scared -- like a deer in the headlights -- it's all over.
My congressman, Pat Tiberi, has been called the "quarterback" of repeal of the Affordable Care Act. He was called that by the head coach of Congress, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. That makes sense, as he's the chairman of the congressional subcommittee which is supposed to do all of the repealing and, allegedly, the replacing of the ACA. His coach has told him that he's to go out there and get rid of it and to replace it with something that isn't going to cause hardship or pain for the millions of people who rely upon it, over 50,000 of whom live in our district.
Coach Ryan, however, hasn't given our quarterback a game plan. This despite over six years to come up with one. Without a game plan, Tiberi is scared. And, as every football fan can tell you, a scared quarterback with no game plan is a sure loser.
We know there's no game plan because if there was one, we would've seen it by now. Oh sure, there's been talk of one. Donald Trump, who is the one who seems to be calling the plays here, says the plan will be "something terrific." "Something so much better, so much better, so much better." But that's no more a plan than a coach saying "we're gonna score more points than the other team." How? Neither Pat Tiberi, Paul Ryan nor Donald Trump has said how they're going to repeal the Affordable Care Act without it leaving the millions who rely on it high an dry. So our quarterback is forced to improvise.
So far he's doing a bad job of it.
Tiberi is ducking the people he claims to represent and is steadfastly refusing to meet with them. He won reelection pretty easily in 2016 and our district went for Trump by double digits, so this should be a game played on his home field and the pressure he's facing should not be more than even a modest pass rush. Yet he's got happy feet and has been flushed out of the pocket already. Less than two full months into the new Congress and Pat Tiberi is scrambling. He's scared.
He has every reason to be.
While no one -- myself included -- can honestly claim that the ACA is perfect, there are a lot of people in Ohio who have health insurance thanks to it. These are hardworking people for whom healthcare coverage provided by the ACA is a matter of life or death. These are people who may take issue with the ACA for some good reasons but, if their health insurance is taken away, they don’t know what they’re going to do. People who, if their child needed surgery or their wife got cancer and the Affordable Care Act was the reason they could get health insurance, wouldn’t be able to withstand it being ripped up without a plan to replace it. These are people who maybe don't like how the game has gone so far, but they have every right to see the game plan going forward and to know that it stands a chance of success.
Donald Trump and Paul Ryan have no idea what the game plan is. If they did, they would've told us by now. Yet they're sending their quarterback, Pat Tiberi, into the game all the same. He is woefully unprepared and isn't up to the challenge. And worse, he's scared. As anyone who has watched their team's quarterback struggle knows, that all but ensures defeat.
I have no idea if Trump and Ryan will ever come up with a game plan, but it's time to bench Pat Tiberi. He has no idea what he's doing out there and he's going to get somebody hurt.
Tonight I had the pleasure of meeting Brian R. Alexander, author of the new book "Glass House." He's a brilliant man who has written an extraordinarily important book at the exact moment it is most needed.
"Glass House" chronicles the downfall of Alexander's hometown, Lancaster, Ohio due to the downfall of Anchor Hocking Glass which, in turn, was due to the machinations of private equity and greed. It's a story about how one party to the Great American Social Contract -- big business and finance -- decided that it was more efficient to breach its obligations to the other party -- workers and the communities in which they live -- than to honor them.
Anchor Hocking was a Fortune 500 company which, along with some smaller yet still important companies, formed the backbone of Lancaster for close to a century. This partnership of business and community led Forbes to dedicate an entire issue to Lancaster in 1947, calling it "the quintessential American town" and the “epitome and apogee of the American free enterprise system.” The city was vibrant, the people were prosperous, the schools were strong and the sense of community forged by the shared goals of its corporate and private citizens provided the stability necessary to allow Lancaster's civic culture to flourish.
While the decline of industrialized cities like Lancaster in the 1970s and 1980s is now characterized by many as an inevitable fact of history, there was nothing inevitable about what happened to Lancaster. Glass manufacturing is not easily outsourced due to the fragility of the product, so it's not a simple matter of Anchor Hocking's business moving to Mexico or China in search of cheap labor.
Rather, Anchor Hocking fell victim to private-equity financiers like Carl Ichan and Cerberus Capital Management swooping in and milking the company for whatever cash they could, while providing nothing of value to the company itself, let alone the people of Lancaster. Ichan greenmailed his way to several million easy dollars. Cerberus leveraged Anchor Hocking to the hilt, bleeding it with fees and percentages via deals that thrust all of the risk on the company and its workers and none on the owners, all of which was encouraged by the deregulation of the financial industry and the perpetuation of "greed is good" culture of the Reagan years. Valuable assets were sold off and leased back at company expense, massive amounts of debt was incurred and pension obligations were not honored, all while the company's succession of owners raked in millions.
While Anchor Hocking continues to be a going concern, the effect of these machinations has been devastating for Lancaster. Most obviously in terms of the elimination of jobs, the reduction in salaries and benefits for existing workers, factory shutdowns and the elimination of pensions, all necessitated by the company's massive, unnecessary debt and the bleeding of its revenues by financial speculators and corporate pirates. The result: Lancaster's unemployment rate has risen and its underemployment rate has skyrocketed in the past 35 years. It's simply a poorer place than it once was for some very direct and very obvious reasons.
But it's also worse off for some less-than-immediately-obvious ones.
When new ownership came in, the entire management and executive class of Anchor Hocking was either fired or moved out of Lancaster to far away corporate headquarters, cutting a huge chunk of wealthy and educated citizens out of the civic fabric of the city. As Alexander notes, these people -- and their spouses -- were the ones who organized public festivals, led philanthropic efforts, served as elders and leaders in churches, took an active role in the PTA and spearheaded a large portion of the cultural initiatives of the city. They likewise formed a class of people who were prosperous enough to be able to participate directly in civic and government leadership out of a sense of duty as opposed to careerism, which has a way of encouraging ethical behavior. A healthy city in a capitalist system needs working people making good wages, but it also needs an executive and political class with a vested interest in the community. When the financiers moved in on Anchor Hocking and relocated the company's brain trust to places like New York and Chicago, Lancaster lost this practically overnight and its civic and political institutions have suffered tremendously.
The combination of economic suffering and the suffering of civic culture has waylaid Lancaster, Ohio. It has suffered from all of the obvious things associated with increased poverty -- crime, drug abuse and corruption -- but it has also suffered psychic blows which are harder to capture with statistics.
Alexander, who now lives in California, returned to Lancaster to write this book and embedded himself in his old hometown. He forged real friendships with people he met in local dive bars and in once-proud country clubs which now sell memberships for $100. He was no cultural tourist, treating the people he met as data points of subjects. He befriended them and talked to them and listened to their stories.
They are stories of hopelessness and aimlessness. Of financial struggle and of cultural and existential ennui. For 100 years, a person who grew up in Lancaster had an idea of what they might do with their future that allowed for the possibility of staying there. Now, those who do not abandon Lancaster after graduating high school find themselves wondering how they fit into their community and how their community fits in the world. Maybe they take a series of service industry jobs which require little of them and which do nothing to instill a sense of pride or meaning or commitment. Maybe -- after years of hearing politicians, both Democratic and Republican, who claim to care about them but who do nothing to follow up their lip service with action -- they simply lose themselves to disillusionment. Maybe they just buy guns and Oxy in order to feel safe or to feel nothing. Maybe, in desperation, they throw in with a charlatan like Donald Trump who promises to make things the way they used to be.
As every review of "Glass House" will no doubt note, Alexander contends with many of the same issues and themes as does J.D. Vance's bestseller, "Hillbilly Elegy." It's a logical comparison. Both are focused on small towns in Ohio which border on Appalachia. Both deal with social decline and decay, drug addiction, poverty and hopelessness. The differences between the books, however, could not be more stark.
Unlike Vance and "Hillbilly Elegy," which I reviewed a few months ago, Alexander and "Glass House" conclude that, rather than some ill-explained and spontaneous decision of working people to suddenly become shiftless and lazy, there are actual real, straightforward and understandable institutional reasons for Lancaster's decline. Vance, without any empirical evidence, views an entire swath of the country's problems to be attributable to a simultaneous moral failure on the part of millions of people. It's a view that, by shocking coincidence, absolves the sorts of investment banks and private equity firms for which Vance has worked of any responsibility.
Alexander, in contrast, makes a compelling and economical case that some very concrete causes led to real effects which flow logically from them. As a big fan of cause and effect over Vance's brand of magical thinking -- and as a bigger fan of assuming that people are rational actors and not lost souls, easily corrupted -- I fall SHARPLY in Alexander's camp when it comes to all of this. For what it's worth, he's also a much better writer who has seen much more of the world than has Vance and he comes off more intelligent and more empathetic than does America's latest literary and political darling.
Please, read "Glass House." Read it especially if you read "Hillbilly Elegy." Read it especially if you're a coastal liberal who nodded, uncritically, along with J.D. Vance's pablum as a means of assuaging your guilt about your ignorance of what has befallen middle America in the past few decades and felt that, by doing so, you were paying a proper amount of cultural penance. It's a better book that it better written and which has the benefit of making a boatload of sense where Vance's strains credulity every single time it strays from the memoir at its core. "Glass House" is not a simplistic fable like "Hillbilly Elegy." It's a smart, sensible, approachable and eye-opening book that treats a complex topic with necessary sophistication while treating the real human beings at its center with the respect they deserve.
"Glass House" does not tell us how to cure the disease which has infected American business and political culture, but it properly diagnoses it, and that's the essential first step.
I just watched the latest Trump press conference. As usual, it was a disaster. Not for him so much, as he's apparently bulletproof and/or oblivious, but for things like rationality, democracy and civil society. It served as just the latest in a never ending series of reminders that we have given a dangerously arrogant, deluded and incompetent man the nuclear codes.
It also reminded us that the press has no idea how to ask Trump a question.
I understand why they are having so much trouble. While presidents have used press conferences as a means of propaganda and reality denial for as long as presidents have given press conferences, at least a small amount of actual information has been disseminated at the things over the years. Presidents -- even Nixon -- have always possessed at least a scintilla of shame which regulated just how big their lies could be and which, in turn, reined in their most nonsensical tactics of distraction. As such, a reporter's lazy, open-ended or compound question has never been that harmful. Presidents have become experts at ducking them and steering them to other, more comfortable topics, but they have always at least pretended to be acquainted with reality and have always communicated some rudimentary information as they sparred with the Fourth Estate.
Not Trump. He hits the lectern at Mach 2 with his hair on fire spewing a brand of nonsensical drivel that would make Tristian Tzara chuck it all, go back to school and become an actuary. He is so utterly shameless that, were he not so mendacious, dangerous and corrupt, it'd almost be perversely admirable. He has blown past Orwellian archetypes so quickly that he is not even bothering to answer the question "what is two plus two" with "five." He's gone straight on to "potato."
As such, the presidential press conference has shed the last vestiges of an exchange of information and has, necessarily, become a truly adversarial affair. The guy being questioned has already, in explicit terms, declared war on the press. The investigative journalists and columnists have grokked this and are firing their big guns at Trump on the daily. It's time for the members of the White House Press Corps -- the ones who actually get to ask Trump questions -- to quit pretending they're sparring and join the goddamn fight.
While I am a member of the media, I'm not really a reporter. I never went to J-school and I don't interview people very often. I don't have a fedora with a card that says "press" in the band. I don't even own one of those cool little digital tape recorders. As an interviewer of willing, sensible and amiable subjects, I'm fairly mediocre. I get the basic information fairly well, but I'm not fantastic at digging too deeply below the surface. I just don't have the reps yet.
But as a lawyer who did cross-examinations and depositions and who conducted internal investigations for 11 years, I do have a lot of experience asking questions of people who don't want to answer them. Or who have something to hide. Like any trial lawyer, I've sat across a table or stood across a room from people who I knew to be lying to me and I got them to either admit it or to look so bad in denying it that they may as well have.
I was not successful at it because I am uniquely talented. Indeed, compared to my colleagues, I suspect I was pretty average when it came to legal talent and instincts. I was successful at it because I followed some basic rules that I and every other trial lawyer is taught. They are rules that, in this mad age, when the President of the United States of America is trying to get one over on us like some employee embezzling from the payroll of my clients tried to get over on me, would serve the White House Press Corps well.
The big ones:
Litigation, war and conducting presidential press conferences are, obviously, very different things. But they do have a few things in common. In all three you have a mission. Thanks to the approach the Trump Administration has taken, in all three you, unfortunately, have an adversary. Above all else in all three you have to have a plan and it has to be a plan that you can carry out without your adversary controlling the terms of engagement. By following the rules of litigation and, in some cases the rules of war, you're way more likely to be successful than whatever the hell it is you're doing now.
I became a full time writer in November 2009. According to WordPress, I've written 23,509 posts for NBC. I don't know what the word count average is, but even if you estimate on the low side that's somewhere between five million and ten million words. That's the same amount of words as, like, 120 novels. They'd be really bad novels, of course, but writing 17 novels a year is a lot of writing, even if it's bad.
In addition to that, I've written all of this personal stuff. Five hundred words there, a thousand words there. A few projects of 5,000 or 11,000 words. I've written over 132,000 tweets since 2009 as well. I post on Facebook. I live on my laptop.
As such, it was probably just a matter of time before I got carpal tunnel syndrome. I was diagnosed with it on Tuesday. They gave me this brace and some stretching exercises to do.
The weird part: it only really hurts when I stretch my arm out at full length to reach for things. It doesn't hurt at all to have my hands on the keyboard typing. Indeed, that feels just like normal.
Which means that, nah, I probably ain't gonna get better. Here's to 120 more bad novels.
"А у вас негров линчуют" is a Russian phrase which translates to "And you are lynching Negroes." It was a phrase used by leaders of (and apologists for) the Soviet Union in an effort to deflect criticism. Stalin sends millions to their deaths and oppresses millions more? "Hey, А у вас негров линчуют!" they would say in an effort to undercut American human rights charges.
It's clever enough on an abstract level in that, yeah, it has a literal truth to it. The United States' hands were certainly not clean with respect to human rights and civil rights. But it's also a logical fallacy of the most basic order. "Tu quoque" -- Latin for "you too" -- reasoning, which goes like this:
Fred: "You should stop drinking, Bob, it's destroying your life."
Bob: "You've been drinking since you were 21!"
The second assertion may be true, but it does nothing to address or refute the first assertion. Indeed, it's a way of avoiding the first assertion. Bob may be a drinker, but maybe he's not a problem drinker. And no matter what the case is with Bob, it doesn't mean Fred isn't ruining his life.
Tu quoque reasoning is designed to obfuscate and to create the illusion of false equivalency. It's likewise a form of ad hominem argument, designed to throw attention on the one making an accusation rather than answer for the accusation. As many who lived under communist dictatorships observed -- people like Vaclav Havel -- it's a favorite tactic of demagogues and dictators who use it and its superficial appeal to inspire surrogates to turn on their critics.
Donald Trump is a master of tu quoque reasoning. Indeed, a large part of his campaign was based on it. No matter the claim against him, he turned it into an opportunity to fire back at the media or whoever it was who made the claim, turning everything into a referendum on his critics while never being forced to contend with the substance of their claims.
Today, however, he may have topped himself in this regard, becoming the first American president to use the tactic to defend Russian despotism. Speaking to Fox News in his pre-Super Bowl interview, Trump drew an equivalence between Russia and the United States:
Asked by host Bill O’Reilly if he respected Putin, Trump replied: “I do respect Putin.” Told that Putin is a “killer”, Trump said: “We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country’s so innocent?”
Putin, of course, has literally had political enemies killed, rendering Trump's comments here one of the best examples of "А у вас негров линчуют" since Brezhnev died.
When I first heard this last night I thought that it may be a tough one for Trump to easily pull off. Indeed, even some Republican politicians immediately rebuked him for it. But not many. Indeed, during my time on social media today, I've seen far more people nodding at Trump's fallacious little pirouette than criticizing him for it. People who spent eight years accusing anyone who didn't wear an American flag lapel pin of being a Fifth Columnist suddenly eager to engage in a nuanced critique of America's shortcomings. Or eager to argue that Putin may be bad but Obama was worse and Hillary would've opened up American gulags.
This is how a demagogue stays in power.
Yesterday the president left the White House on Marine One unexpectedly. It led to a tweet from the Associated Press which said "Trump has left the White House on Marine One on an unannounced trip, White House has not disclosed his destination."
That phrasing struck me as funny -- where might an erratic president go without telling anyone? --so a minute later I made a couple of stabs at humor. First I tweeted an image from the graphic novel, "Watchmen," in which president Nixon rides in Marine One as an apocalypse looms. Then I tweeted an image from the final episode of the TV show "M*A*S*H" with a view from a helicopter looking down onto the rocks that Hawkeye had arranged to say "Goodbye," except they had been Photoshopped to say "Delete Your Account." I wrote "Trump's view from Marine One." They were not good jokes to be sure, but they were pretty harmless ones.
A little while later, after I was offline for the evening, it was revealed that Trump had left to go to the air base where the remains of Ryan Owens, a Navy SEAL killed in action in Yemen were arriving. I obviously did not know that at the time I made my jokes, but it's not as if it made a difference given that my jokes were pretty benign ones that had nothing to do with the substance of Trump's trip, whatever it was.
A couple of hours later I returned to Twitter to find a dozen or so people with "Deplorable" or "Make America Great Again" in their bios tweeting things at me, NBC, Major League Baseball and places like Fox News and Breitbart to the effect of "NBC must fire the anti-patriot Craig Calcaterra! "Craig Calcaterra hates our troops!" and "Craig Calcaterra must apologize to our fallen troops!" And those were the mild and coherent ones. Many others told me that I deserved to die "a traitor's death" and that someone should take me out and have me shot. I've been on Twitter for a long time, I've seen that stuff and did what I always do when I see it: block users and report accounts for threats of violence. Not that it does any good.
This morning I woke up to news that the president (a) threatened the president of Mexico that he might send troops across the border; (b) insulted the president of Australia, one of our longest standing allies; and (c) trotted out surrogates to put Iran "on notice." Then I read something far more sobering than any of that: reports that the first military raid Trump authorized was an utter debacle of hasty and shoddy planning, leading to unnecessary death and destruction. Including the death of Ryan Owens, the SEAL whose body he flew on Marine One yesterday to welcome home.
But please, folks, tell me how I'm the one who is irresponsible when it comes to our armed forces.