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.
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.
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.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin was fired this week, after which he wrote a New York Times editorial in which he said the reason he was forced out was because he opposed the Trump Administration's plan to privatize health care services provided by the V.A.
One could observe that part of the reason he did this was to draw attention away from the fact that he is under fire for a controversial taxpayer-funded trip to Europe. That's been in the news for months now, though, and as far as graft among Trump cabinet officials goes, he's an amateur. I think it's pretty safe to say that, had he not opposed V.A. privatization, he'd still have his job regardless of how badly he betrayed the public trust.
Let it also be said that whatever it was Shulkin did, it pales compared to the betrayal of trust that the privatization of the V.A. would represent.
To be clear, the V.A. has its problems. My brother is a war veteran who depends on the V.A. for the entirely of his medical care. Between what he has told me about his experience and what I have read about the experiences of other veterans, and based on publicly available information about the performance of the V.A., it is clear that the system remains rife with inefficiency, incompetence and waste. While some V.A. facilities provide excellent care -- and while veterans and veterans groups overwhelmingly back the V.A. and have a favorable opinion of it -- too many veterans still face long wait times for medical care, assuming they can even cut through the red tape required to get medical care. Part of this is due to all-too-familiar government inefficiency. A lot of it is due to sixteen straight years of war creating a massive population of sick, wounded and disabled veterans taxing a system that was not prepared to deliver medical care on such a scale and with such complexity. It's also worth nothing that the V.A. is not unique when it comes to red tape, inefficiency and expense in medical care. We have a healthcare crisis as a nation that is not limited to caring for veterans.
For years politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, have paid lip service to funding and reforming the V.A. healthcare system, and there is no shortage of ideas on how to address its problems. Many of the ideas -- indeed, some of the best ones -- do involve participation of the private sector. This is particularly useful in the case of illnesses, injuries and disabilities that are not specific to veterans. Things like wellness services, health maintenance and other routine medical care. Ideally, under any set of arrangements, the V.A. and its expertise in treating veterans will prioritize care for those suffering the complex consequences of military service, be they battlefield injuries, both physical and mental, and longterm care unique to those who fought and served in wartime duty. Its mission in this regard should not be compromise. At the same time, we as a nation owe our veterans comprehensive medical care, and a veteran in need of blood pressure medication, a prescription to treat a case of the flu or routine outpatient surgery should not have to go without or wait months for care. To the extent private medical services can be utilized to fulfill the V.A.'s mission, it absolutely should be.
I do not suspect, however, that the V.A. privatization scheme Trump and his fellow Republicans have in mind is so limited.
Most privatization schemes floated by Republicans are cash grabs for the donor class. Initiatives which serve the decades-long Republican agenda of rendering the government an ineffective appendage of private enterprise with the ultimate aim being to reduce or eliminate taxes on the wealthy, free the business community from regulations that interfere with its ability to make money and to subsidize the private sector with public funds. The examples of this, both aspirational and already occurring under Republican leadership, are legion. We've become so used to the dynamic that it hardly registers to most people anymore.
To the extent Republican plans to privatize the V.A. track this model -- and I would bet a great sum that they do -- they would represent a new level of irresponsibility. Indeed, the idea is obscene.
Obscene because the one thing upon which even the most arch-conservative Randian fanboys can agree is that it is the responsibility of government to wage war. It is most serious and the most morally and ethically-fraught endeavor a nation can undertake and it is one that must, necessarily, be taken by a nation as a whole. That goes for both the waging of war and the paying of war's consequences, be they economic or moral. The prospect of outsourcing the payment of those consequences to private business -- especially private businesses who have paid to influence the decision to do so and who engage in a rent-seeking, profit-grabbing manner, which is an utter certainty under this president -- is moral depravity.
Just as it is the nation's responsibility to wage war, it is the nation's obligation to care for those it sends to fight, kill, die and be damaged in those wars. The buck must stop in the public sector, not be shifted to the private sector. While there is a role for outsourcing medical care to private practitioners and hospitals, management, funding and, above all else, responsibility for the care of sick, wounded and disabled veterans remains a public obligation from which we can never walk away.
Fund and staff the V.A. and its hospitals and clinics, whatever the cost. Take responsibility for a generation -- now two generations -- of veterans who we, as a nation, have taken advantage of and who some wish to forget. Do not use the V.A. to further the Republican dream of marginalizing, scapegoating crippling and, eventually, eliminating government services for the public of which it is comprised and to which it is accountable.
My daughter participated in the student walkouts yesterday. I didn't prompt her to. In fact, we hardly talked about her doing so beforehand. I simply told her that, if there was a walkout, and if she chose to participate in it, that I would support her.
It was clear that the school didn't want her and her fellow eighth graders walking out. In the runup to it, parents received emails in which the principal talked about an assembly the school was holding and how kids were being encouraged to "walk up, not out." Meaning: "walk up to kids you may not know or who are loners or who are marginalized in the interests of forming some sort of connection that, I suppose, would prevent them from becoming murderous psychopaths one day rather than protest gun violence."
That idea pissed me off. Its message, like so many establishment political messages these days, is aimed at blunting genuinely sharp political statements, not supporting them. It's akin to "Black Lives Matter" becoming "All Lives Matter." Something that, superficially, sounds pleasant but which actually negates the original idea, by design.
This morning I wrote a letter to the school superintendent and the school board about it. It was an open letter which I shared on Facebook and Twitter:
An open letter to New Albany-Plain Local Schools.
I'm not sure if I'll get a response. I'm pretty sure that, either way, I'll have my name placed in the "pain in the ass" file for future reference. Kinda don't care.
Last night Conor Lamb, a political unknown not too long ago, beat a well-established Republican for a congressional seat in an overwhelmingly Republican Pennsylvania district that Donald Trump won by over 20 points in 2016.
No doubt inspired by Trump's 2016 margin, Lamb's opponent went out of his way to embrace Trump, inviting him, his son, his daughter and other Trump surrogates to the district during the campaign and saying on the stump that he was "Trump before Trump was Trump." Given how poorly that worked, Trump backlash obviously played a part.
It did not play the primary part, however. Lamb went out of his way to avoid talking about Trump for most of the cycle. He localized the race at every turn and steadfastly focused his campaign on pocketbook issues affecting workers and working people. He espoused a pro-labor message that resonated with the blue collar district. Last night, in his victory speech, he reemphasized unions and work and the role labor should continue to have in the political sphere. It was a message tailor made to appeal to the working class.
As I wrote in my five-part series last fall, this is what a Democratic candidate must do to win districts like PA-18 and my district, OH-12. Rather than track to the center in an effort to co-opt conservative economic positions, he or she must track to the left and make an appeal to working men and women, talking about the issues that affect them and promising to make their lot better.
This is the smart play because political polarization is much more complicated than it is usually portrayed. Many of the very same people who may respond to socially conservative or reactionary messages will respond to surprisingly liberal economic messages. The widespread applicability of such an approach is debatable -- Lamb holds positions on guns and military policy, among others, that will not play in Petaluma or Park Slope -- but as it's often said, all politics are local, and I am convinced that such an approach is the best bet for Democrats in traditionally conservative districts with a large working class population. It's certainly the tack Conor Lamb took.
That message is not a difficult one to articulate. As I wrote back in November, a candidate wishing to win a district like this one need only state some simple, relatable truths to which a majority of voters will always respond positively. Truths which focus on four broad issues and their underlying values, from which all substantive policy positions should flow:
Putting America to Work
The Dow Jones may climb and the unemployment numbers may be low, but working people know that the system is rigged, with productivity going up but people earning less and retirement becoming a fading dream for far too many. As real wages for real work are stagnant or declining, the benefits of our economy are being gobbled up by a smaller and smaller number of people who grow richer and richer by the day. It's unsustainable. It's unfair. It's bad for America.
We must make our economy work for everyone, not just for the rich. We should raise the minimum wage. We must ensure that workers are given sick leave, family leave and medical leave. We must prevent companies from misclassifying employees to rob them of benefits and protections they deserve. We must provide protections for workers whose livelihoods are threatened by outsourcing, deindustrialization and automation and, if such protections prove inefficient, we must help retrain workers for in-demand occupations, especially occupations in emerging industries in the advanced energy sector. We must create disincentives for businesses to eliminate jobs and incentivize them to put workers first.
America has always been at its best when the lives of its workers have been at their best. Making workers' lives better should be our top priority.
Years of tax cuts, service cuts and neglect have led to a degradation of our highways, railways, airports, bridges, tunnels, waterworks, sewers, the energy grid, our schools and our hospitals. The very bones of America are cracking and calcifying and they require a heavy investment in order to bring them back to strength.
An infrastructure plan -- a real infrastructure plan that puts Americans to work, not some scam designed to put money in the pockets of developers, banks and middlemen -- is badly needed. Infrastructure projects should be dictated by need, not by their ability to turn a profit. They should support good jobs that provide fair wages and benefits while discouraging anti-labor practices. They should likewise be sustainable, acknowledging that once you build something you must likewise maintain it and that you must train and retain workers to do so.
Infrastructure should be understood as an investment, not a one-time expense. It is, quite literally, the foundation upon which America is built.
Keeping America Healthy
America is the only major country on Earth that allows health insurance executives, pharmaceutical companies and their stockholders to get rich while tens of millions of people suffer because they can't get basic health care. This is obscene and immoral. Every man, woman and child in our country should be able to access the health care they need when they need it, regardless of their income.
This is not just the right thing to do, it's the smart thing to do. Every moment an American is worrying about the health of their family is a moment not spent making their lives and the lives of their families better. Every dollar spent on medical costs is a dollar not being spent on something else. Even those with health insurance already are paying costs beyond their premiums in terms of limited opportunities and the inability to change careers, start businesses or stay home to take care of their families because they fear losing employer-based coverage. Guaranteed health care for all Americans would eliminate a tremendous obstacle to their productivity, their innovation and their happiness.
By making health care a for-profit product available only to those with the ability to pay, we are in a self-inflicted health care crisis in this country. The only solution to it is the establishment of a single-payer national health care program. America should have done this decades ago. We can and should do it now.
Putting People Before Wall Street
Banks and corporations think that they run this country. They think it because our leaders, both Republicans and Democrats, have let them think it by taking their campaign funds and working hard to protect their interests at the expense of the American people. That they'd ever do this is unacceptable. That they doubled and tripled down on it after Wall Street and big business wrecked the world economy and caused the Great Recession from which many people are still trying to recover, is unconscionable.
In everything we do as a country, we must remember that we are a nation of people, not a nation of banks and corporations. Any policy we pursue, be it related to jobs, infrastructure, health care, taxes, the environment, trade, defense and everything else, should serve the interests of the people, not Wall Street. Ordinary Americans, not the wealthy. People who work, not people who get rich off the work of others.
Candidates who want to win tough districts like PA-18 and OH-12 will not merely run against Donald Trump, they will run for something. They will not follow the old, misguided conventional wisdom about "claiming the center. They will not shy away from policies that are economically liberal. They will, in fact, advance a populist economic agenda for which voters hunger. Finally, They will hammer home the themes and positions I mentioned above, over and over again.
Conor Lamb showed last night that this theoretical framework I talked about last year can work. Now it's time for other candidates to pick up that ball and run with it.
Another mass killing. Another round of politicians offering "thoughts and prayers," but acting as if nothing else can be or should be done. It doesn't have to be this way.
When people suggest measures to address gun violence, the response is, invariably, "that wouldn't eliminate these massacres!" As if there is no middle ground between totally eliminating all bad things and doing absolutely nothing. We don't think this way about automobile or airplane crashes. We don't think about medical problems this way. That people revert to such an all-or-nothing response when it comes to guns is purely a function of their unwillingness to do anything, not the inefficacy of taking action.
Indeed, there are several things which could be done to reduce the probability of mass shootings happening again or, at the very least, making them less common and, when they do occur, less deadly.
Unlike some people on the left who talk about gun regulations, I do appreciate that the Second Amendment exists and I appreciate that it limits much of what can be done to address gun violence. The Second Amendment does not, however, foreclose action. Indeed, the landmark Second Amendment case, District of Columbia v. Heller, specifically held that "like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose." Justice Scalia's majority opinion, in fact, provided that all manner of reasonable restrictions -- including licensing, background checks and restrictions related to mental illness and the like -- could be imposed without offending the Second Amendment.
We can and should work to pass laws or regulations, on the state or federal level, as appropriate, that impose some common sense on a gun industry that, at present, enjoys a shocking lack of oversight due to political cowardice and the power of the gun lobby. The restrictions I favor, which would in no way unreasonably infringe upon people's legal rights under the Second Amendment as currently interpreted, fall into three categories:
None of these sorts of regulations would take guns away from law abiding citizens or infringe on the their rights under the Second Amendment. All of them would work to keep guns from falling into the hands of violent criminals and discourage those who would seek to inflict mass casualties.
No, these regulations would not totally eliminate gun violence in this country. Such an expectation is unrealistic and rejecting any reasonable measure because it does not meet that unrealistic expectation would be absurd. Such regulations would, however, go a long way toward reducing gun violence.
Every lawmaker should be asked why they don't support these measures. Any lawmaker who does not have a good answer should be voted out of office.
Over the past couple of months I've been chronicling how President Trump and Republicans in Congress have taken aim at the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society. How they passed a tax plan that benefitted the wealthy at the expense of those in need. How they have since aimed their sights on programs which benefit the poor and the sick. How they are seeking to stigmatize and alienate those who use and depend on social services.
My aim in doing this is not to simply point at a political party I do not support and say "hey, that's bad." A lot of people do that. My aim has been to show how, in these policies, Republicans have largely abandoned all pretense of conservatism as it's normally understood and have, instead, adopted a political agenda of unabashed class warfare, in which the poor and needy are cast as enemies. It's a campaign that cuts across traditional partisan lines and will likely harm just as many people who have traditionally supported Republicans as have supported Democrats. As such, I have argued, it is, I believe, either evidence of or a harbinger for of a political realignment in which the poor, regardless of their political orientation, are pitted against the wealthy, regardless of theirs.
The latest example of this can be found in President Trump's budget proposal, released yesterday. It would slash Medicaid. It would defund regional authorities and commissions whose work disproportionately impacts low-income people and minorities. It would end job-training and educational-development programs, slash or end subsidized student loans and public-service forgiveness for student loans. It would end low-income-housing energy-assistance programs. It would impose time-limited benefits and work requirements for those seeking disability assistance.
Perhaps the most notable of all of its proposals, however, involve the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program, SNAP, which was once known as the food stamp program.
SNAP involves what is, basically, a debit card, preloaded with a relatively small amount of money to help poor families buy food. About 44 million Americans, mostly women and children, get their nutrition needs supplemented, in part, by SNAP. While the program has long been a boogeyman for conservatives, who pass along unsubstantiated claims of SNAP recipients using their benefits to buy steaks and things, it's a rigorously policed program, which has seen fraud rates dramatically decline over time, to all-time historical lows today.
Trump's proposed budget would radically transform SNAP. Rather than provide money in an debit card, it would slash those benefits and attempt to make up the difference with a box of canned goods, referred to as "America's Harvest Box." The Office of Management and budget director Mick Mulvaney described it as a “Blue Apron-type program," but it's more akin to war rations or a trip to a soup kitchen. The boxes would include shelf-stable milk instead of fresh dairy products and would not contain any fresh fruits or vegetables whatsoever, rendering the word "Harvest" in the title rather dubious. The boxes would be paid for, assembled and distributed by the federal government.
It's strange that such a program is being proposed by so-called conservatives, because there is absolutely nothing conservative about the scheme:
So, if this "Harvest Box" idea neither saves money nor advances traditional conservative principles, what does it do?
Mostly it's aggressively hostile to SNAP recipients. It presumes they cannot and should not make their own food choices. It deprives them of the ability to purchase fresh food, food to which they are accustomed to cooking and eating and likely limits the ability of SNAP recipients with specialized diets -- people with food allergies or celiac disease, for example -- to meet their nutritional needs. It thus directly harms them while having the added benefit of stigmatizing them. It's essentially a punitive exercise aimed at making the everyday existence of SNAP recipients worse.
While such a thing makes zero sense in the context of traditional governing, it makes perfect sense in the context of the political realignment about which I've hypothesized.
Such policies lend themselves perfectly to a political regime that, as a matter of conscious policy, favors the wealthy and disfavors the poor and vulnerable. It feeds directly into class resentment which can be seen in the erroneous complaints of those who believe in the old "welfare queen" stereotype and pass along apocryphal stories of food stamp recipients buying T-bone steaks and cigarettes at the grocery store. Such class resentment, in turn, gives greater and greater power to those who would demonize and marginalize the poor.
Proposals such as these are not tone deaf. They are not aberrant. Attacking and scapegoating the poor is a mode of conduct that is reasonably and rationally calculated to rally the support of the wealthy and privileged who, in recent political history, have had far, far greater say in who gets elected in this country than anyone else. It is class warfare, consciously undertaken by the wealthy and the powerful for political gain.
It will not be stopped until leaders those with influence in public opinion call it out for what it is and work hard to oppose it. When they do, and if and when people are mobilized, the political realignment will be complete. Instead of a fight between conservatives and liberals as we currently know it, it will be a fight between the wealthy and currently powerful on one side and ordinary Americans on the other.
Which side will you be on? For my part, I'll take the side with the greater numbers. There can't be more of them than us. There can't be more.
Jesus Berrones was one and a half years-old when his parents brought him from Mexico to the United States. Though here illegally, this country was the only one he knew. He grew up in Arizona and called it home.
When he was 19, he was caught driving with a fake license, probably obtained because he couldn't get a real one without proof-of-citizenship. He was deported, came back, was deported again and came back again. It's a pretty standard story of illegal immigration in the American Southwest.
After coming back the second time, Berrones started a family. He's 30 now and has a wife, Sonia, and five children, with another baby on the way. They live in Arizona. Sonia and all of the children are American citizens. Berrones is the family's sole breadwinner.
In 2016, his now five-year-old son was diagnosed with leukemia. As always, he was under threat of deportation due to his own immigration status, but in 2016 Immigration and Customs Enforcement granted him a stay due to his son's illness. Such a decision, in the past, was a typical one. ICE has discretion when it comes to deportation and it had traditionally declined to deport adults who were caring for sick children as a matter of basic human empathy.
Last month, with no warning, things changed: Berrones was told by ICE that he was going to be deported. He hired an attorney to attempt to renew his stay, but it was denied. Berrones is scheduled to be deported tomorrow, but he has since fled to a Phoenix area church which has taken it upon itself to shelter people facing deportation. ICE has no compunction about raiding homes and places of work to arrest and deport people, but it is reluctant to raid churches.
Denying a stay to Berrones and deporting him is certainly within the law, but like all exercises of executive and prosecutorial authority, it is also a choice. A decision driven by the political priorities of Donald Trump and ICE that inflicts needless suffering upon a five-year-old boy battling cancer and his father who cannot be by his side as he fights for his life. They could grant an exception here. They simply choose not to.
It'd be easy to make Donald Trump and ICE into over-the-top, out-of-touch mustache-twirling villains here, but they have backing in this madness. A lot of it. People like the ones who, when I tweeted about Jesus Berrones' case last night, responded like this:
No, I do not believe that the most vile, primarily anonymous Twitter users truly and faithfully represent Americans as a whole, but in this case does it make any difference? The obscenity of the above-quoted sentiment is not the crude manner in which it was stated, but the outcome which such sentiment supports: deporting Jesus Berrones and separating him from is cancer-stricken child. Supporting other perverse family-destroying outcomes because doing so is sold as "getting tough" on illegal immigration. A lot of people support such obscene outcomes. Our president was elected, in large part, because they are outcomes he promised. Millions of Americans back him in this.
The people who responded to me last night may be particularly horrible, but in effect, they are no different than those who are convinced that the greatest threat to America is illegal immigration and who believe that no action which purports to fight illegal immigration can be truly bad because, hey, the law is the law. People who are fine with discretion and compassion being removed from our immigration decisions. People who have stood by with no concern as ICE has been transformed into an often lawless paramilitary force, devoid of human empathy.
One day, I hope, the sick, xenophobic fever and mass failure of empathy gripping this country will break. If and when it does, the history of this time will be written and, I suspect, Donald Trump will be cast as the villain. He'll deserve that, but it'll be a whitewash if he and he alone is cast in that role.
Millions of self-proclaimed good Americans support this obscenity. People who should have to go to sleep tonight and every night for the rest of their lives facing the fact that they chose, through their opinions, their votes and then through their silence to support a system which would deprive a cancer-stricken child of the love and comfort of his father.
That is who we are as a nation right now. Those are our values.
Last year President Trump said that he'd like to see a grand military parade on Pennsylvania Avenue, with troops and tanks and missiles passing by as he stands there like some generalissimo or something. Yesterday it was reported that, yes, Trump has asked the Pentagon to plan such a spectacle. I suspect that, as a result, we'll have such a parade some time this year.
It's a terrible idea. Given where we are, historically speaking, it would be unprecedented. It would come off like a propaganda exercise and, worst of all, it would fuel Donald Trump's already overheated strongman fever. It's an idea that should be shot down immediately.
There are two basic reasons nations hold military parades. The first one is to celebrate or commemorate great military victories.
There was a tremendous one in Washington following the Union's victory in the Civil War. Similar parades were held following the end of World War I, World War II and the first Persian Gulf War. While military bands or specific military units or, on occasion, some actual military equipment has appeared in various national parades -- Kennedy's inaugural featured Nike missiles, for example -- celebration or commemoration of a military victory is, traditionally, the only reason the United States has held large-scale, dedicated military parades.
The other reason to hold big military parades is for propaganda purposes. The Soviet Union and, later, Russia, held the largest and grandest of all military parades each May to celebrate Victory Day in World War II. That, obviously, was something worth celebrating and commemorating given the Soviet's massive sacrifice and massive contribution to victory in the war, but there is no question that it was and is a propaganda tool as well. In the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras it was to signal to the United States and Western powers that the Soviet military was formidable. When Vladimir Putin revived the parades a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union, it was clearly done with an aim at reestablishing Russia's status as a power.
This is in keeping with the manner in which other autocrats and despots have used military parades in recent decades. As a means of flexing muscles to show how strong they are and to send such a message to their neighbors or the the rest of the world. It's not surprising that Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi used to hold them. No small number of Latin American despots have done so. North Korea dictator Kim Jong Un recently went so far as to change the date of a historical military anniversary in order to have an excuse to hold such a parade with an aim toward flexing his muscles before the upcoming Winter Olympics. A large scale military parade is the classic tool of a little man who wants to appear big.
Which brings us back to Trump.
At the moment, we have no grand military victory to celebrate. We still have over 10,000 troops in Afghanistan. It's a war that has dragged on for over 16 years and is increasingly being described as, at best, a stalemate. We have mostly pulled out of Iraq, but calling our more than decade-long involvement in that country, which led to multiple political and humanitarian disasters and continued instability, a "victory" is misleading at best. We still send troops and there. Sometimes they still die. Thousands upon thousands of them suffer from physical and mental injuries and lack adequate medical care. Our country should honor, memorialize and, above all else, take care of the men and women who fought, died or were wounded there, but it would be highly inappropriate to mount the glorious victory parade Trump no doubt envisions.
That leaves the second justification for such a parade. Propaganda. An event staged so that a little man can appear big. This is, without question, what Trump has in mind. It is likewise in keeping with the other autocrat/strongman traits Trump has displayed in his year in office.
He has attacked our free press and endeavored to stifle dissent. He has called for the investigation of his political opponents. He has fought -- and possibly obstructed -- investigation into his own acts and the acts of his subordinates. He has scapegoated immigrants and minorities. He has engaged in rank cronyism and kleptocracy. He has, at almost every turn, praised dictators and strongmen. There is a palpable sense of envy to such praise.
Is it any shock, then, that Trump wants to hold a military parade? Is there any doubt what is motivating him? The only thing in doubt about the whole affair is whether he'll show up to it wearing some gaudy quasi-military uniform of his own making, demanding to be addressed as Commander-In-Chief until the last missile rolls down Pennsylvania Avenue.
While there is much to criticize in our history and while we have often failed to live up to our own ideals as a nation, historically speaking, we have preferred to think of ourselves as a nation that speaks softly and carries a big stick. That Trump would rather we wag our stick around like this is not at all surprising, but it's not in keeping with the American tradition and American ideals.
I doubt there is anyone in a position to offer this man actual constructive advice these days, but on the off chance there is someone he listens to, I hope they tell him how idiotic this all is.
This morning the Trump administration said that it would allow states to compel people to find work in order to receive Medicaid benefits. This is the first time in the over half-century history of the program that such requirements will be in place.
These requirements are bound to be disastrous for the poor, will likely increase poverty rates and negatively impact the health of our nation's poorest citizens. As such it is the latest front in Republicans' ongoing campaign of class warfare against the poor, the sick and the powerless.
Proponents will point to the work requirements enacted in Bill Clinton's welfare reform efforts in the 1990s as support for the move, ignoring the fact that those requirements were largely disastrous. While they may have boosted employment numbers among the poor at first, they did so by pushing people into unsteady, low-benefit, low-future jobs that did not last. Jobs that, to begin with, existed less due to anything in the reform measure than to the mid-late-90s economic boom which happened to occur at the same time. When that boom went bust people were forced out of those jobs and, with no welfare to fall back on anymore, found themselves on a lower rung of the economic ladder, in a worse off position than before. The only places where welfare work requirements experienced much if any success were in California and Oregon, where the requirements were married to robust and effective job training and placement programs, which were the exception, not the rule.
Today the sorts of readily available jobs for people forced to find work for Medicaid are even MORE benefit-free and transitory, reflecting the overall gig economy ethos in play. At the same time, states administering Medicaid programs are highly unlikely to offer meaningful job training and meaningful opportunities for advancement to these people, because that itself is expensive and would undercut the overarching efforts to slash Medicaid costs. As it is, extra costs are going to be incurred by states trying to monitor and police employment compliance, so there's no chance of real money being used to help people find good work. All of which is to say that, even if Republicans' wildest fantasies are realized and there is an initial spike in Medicaid recipients working, it is unlikely to be meaningful, it is unlikely to last, and we'll soon find ourselves with a lot of unemployed people who, unlike before, have no Medicaid coverage.
This may make people like Paul Ryan happy -- he is on record as having dreamed about slashing Medicaid since he was in college -- but it's immoral and cruel. What's more, the impact of it all will go beyond harming the poor. It will harm society as a whole.
When fewer people who need Medicaid have it, they will put off seeking primary medical care altogether and will only see physicians in serious or emergency situations. Most likely in hospitals' emergency departments, where they will, quite understandably, not be turned away. The twin effects of this are that (a) poor people's health will decline, exacerbating alarming trends we're currently experiencing like U.S. life expectancy decreasing for all but the wealthiest people; and (b) the costs of health care for everyone else will rise because someone has to cover the emergency care they receive.
There have been studies upon studies regarding the failures and flaws of work requirement for federal anti-poverty benefits such as welfare and Medicaid. The proposal announced by the Trump Administration this morning ignores them completely. This is not surprising, because the proposals are not about policy. They are about ideology and politics. An ideology which attributes moral weakness and failure to the poor and blames them for their plight. Politics in which bashing the poor and proposing to "get tough" with them, as if they are criminals, plays well with a certain set of often Republican-leaning voters, regardless of how morally bankrupt such messages are.
A simpler way of putting it: this is class warfare, with the rich and powerful attacking the poor and weak. Which side of that war are you on?