Anthony Bourdain died today.
Unlike so many self-styled literary and entertainment industry badasses, there was simple skill, craft and humanity underlying the attitude, which he would freely allow to show. The former without the latter -- and without self-awareness-- is empty. Whatever he was doing to project that bad boy persona was immediately set aside when he got down to work writing about or chronicling a place, a people, a cuisine or whatever it was he was interested in at the moment.
In losing Anthony Bourdain, we didn't lose a "celebrity chef" or a "travel show host." We lost an insightful, empathetic and humane chronicler of the human condition. A man who could have so easily been a complacent, thrill-seeking, luxury-living, globetrotting celebrity but chose to be something more. He was an anthropologist who discarded dispassionate observation in order to advocate for the best in humanity, paying special attention to the vulnerable, the exploited and the overlooked.
Last year Bourdain went to West Virginia for an episode of his show, "Parts Unknown." In the space of one hour he did a better job of capturing my home state than a thousand poverty porn tourist journalists with pre-written stories parachuting in from coastal publications have ever done. It was typical of his work. He never went with the easy or expected narratives, even if doing so would've saved him a lot of work. Probably because he knew that those easy narratives obscured truths, perpetuated lies and, unwittingly or otherwise, served to work injustices, both large and small.
I embedded that episode below. You should watch it. If he ever went someplace special or interesting or unknown to you, you should watch that too.
My wife and I just got back from nine days in England. It was our honeymoon, delayed a year for various reasons, but coinciding with our first anniversary. I was going to write up a proper travelogue, but I'm too lazy to craft narratives, transitions and connections into something approaching passable prose, so I'm just going to barf out a list of stuff that happened and stuff I observed. Of course, it's gonna end up being longer than a travelogue would've been, but sometimes when you start barfing, you just can't stop.
Click through via that "Read More" button to the lower right if you're into that sort of thing.
Most people in the United States haven't heard of James, and those who have heard of them know them primarily through a surprise college radio hit they had with the song "Laid" back in 1993, later used in the "American Pie" movies. They're far more than a one-hit-wonder, however.
James has put out 13 studio albums with a 14th on the way in August. They've had scads of hits and top-selling albums on the UK charts and a fervent following there, in Europe and in Latin America. A seven-year hiatus in the early-to-mid 2000s notwithstanding, they have been and remain a working band and, unlike a lot of their contemporaries, they remain creatively vital. They put out a new EP and released a couple of songs from the new record a little over a week ago. Some of 'em are bangers.
My wife Allison has been a James fan for 20 years or so, has met the band, has friends she's met through James fandom around the world and has seen them live both in the U.K. and in America. We recently took a trip to the U.K., primarily for our honeymoon/first anniversary -- here's a fairly massive travelogue about the vacation -- but also to go see three James shows on a short tour they did of small venues in small towns across England, Scotland and Wales. As a super fan, Allison would've found a way to see them again eventually, with or without me, but this trip was my first time seeing them live. The first show, in Warrington, was the best show I've ever seen. The other two, in Blackburn and Halifax, were right up there. I'll spare you detailed reviews, but suffice it to say I enjoyed the hell out of myself.
Until I met Allison in late 2011, I was one of those people who didn't know much more about James than "Laid." In the past six and a half years they have become my favorite band. Part of that is a function of "guy meets girl who turns him on to some different music and the association sparks something," but there's more than that going on for me.
As we grew up and matured, men my age were never rewarded for feeling. The benefits of feigning indifference and affecting a pose of ironic and cynical detachment, on the other hand, were considerable.
As I entered adulthood, what one genuinely felt about anyone or anything was less important than the fact that people understood that one liked the right someones and somethings. The Gen-X-approved canon of music, movies, books, fashions, attitudes and personalities which were accompanied by a heaping amount of snobbery directed at those who did not share such tastes. For 1990s 20 or 30-somethings, one was living one’s best life to the extent one made it appear as if one’s life was directed by Quentin Tarantino, released on Matador records and written by David Foster Wallace. Those who did not fall into those general parameters were judged and judged harshly. Rob, from "High Fidelity" was a role model. It escaped us all, of course, that Rob was an emotionally-stunted jackass.
On a personal level, the archetypical Gen-X man exuded the sense that things were humming along just fine at all times and, if they were not, it was never much discussed. Staying in a narrow band of critically-approved tastes went hand-in-hand with portraying a nearly unshakable equanimity. Just as liking the wrong music risked judgment, deviating from a certain personal stance -- showing vulnerability and uncertainty -- was to invite uncomfortable personal conversation and scrutiny for which none of us were prepared.
Ironically, this highly regimented emotion-denying existence and self-imposed conformity was considered a sign of "authenticity."
Not that it felt phony or contrived. The cultivation and maintenance of the quintessential 1990s Gen-X male identity felt organic in the moment. The life I personally constructed around this larger ethos came to me naturally. I went to college, got married, began my career and had children, not just portraying every life event as if it were scripted and thus unremarkable, but feeling as if they were so. I was not some robot — there was happiness, sadness, joy, sorrow and confusion as life unfolded — but those were deviations from the cooler-than-the-room course one’s life was expected to take. Those deviations were expected to be temporary and were expected to right themselves over time.
In hindsight it’s no surprise that everything came crumbling down for me in the space of a few years. That the contradictions and self-denial my career presented and required of me were too great to ignore forever. That the problems in my first marriage were features, not bugs. That the strong and positive emotions inspired by fatherhood and by aging did not jibe with my well-cultivated sense of ironic detachment. I did my best to skate past the remarkable highs and the nearly unendurable lows of life with the help of just the right soundtrack, just the right wardrobe and enough culturally acceptable distractions to make it seem like everything was under control, but it wasn’t sustainable and never could have been.
I was in a very dark place when I met Allison and she knew it. Among the many things she did to help me get through that bad time was to play play me some James stuff.
The first song she played for me was "Tomorrow." The sentiment and structure of that song is pretty obvious and straightforward -- the singer once introduced it as a song he wrote "to keep a friend from jumping off a roof" -- but when you're emotionally stunted and emotionally raw, you need something straightforward like that. Having wallowed in enough dark, depressing music and sad bastard jams over the previous few months, "Tomorrow" was a breath of fresh air. It was the first music I had listened to in a while which suggested to me that things can and will get better rather than give me permission to embrace darkness and depression.
From there I began to listen to some other James stuff and I liked what I heard. While, critically speaking, one can slot them in with a lot of their Madchester and Britpop contemporaries, they don't fit in terribly neatly. They have been described by some critics as the "outcasts" or the "freaks and geeks" of that scene. I get that. They opened for the Smiths once upon a time, played with New Order and traveled in the same circles as The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and all of those wonderful bands, but unlike a lot of their contemporaries they mined veins of positivity and non-conformity not typically covered in 1990s rock. Maybe this explains why they never broke big in an America which, at the time, was into far darker and sludgier sounds. I'm no music critic and I can't be totally sure about that, but I do know that I really needed to hear some positive, even anthemic music in late 2011 and James delivered.
The immediate need to pull myself out of a funk soon passed, but I have returned to James pretty frequently since that time, listening to their music both old and new. Doing so has helped address the larger problems associated with that emotionally-stunted world view of the typical 1990s Gen-X man I described before.
Allowing myself to feel things -- to like things, even if they're not cool things, without apology, excuse or shame, and to be fearless in doing so -- has been critical to my mental and emotional health and personal development over the past several years. It'd be an overstatement to say that getting into some band from Manchester has been the primary reason I've been able to do that, of course. Therapy, emotional reflection and support from and good examples set by loved ones has been far more important. But given that pop culture played a big hand in messing me and my contemporaries up in the first place, listening to a band that embodies that more open and positive ethos certainly helps.
When you're trying to grow as a person, you need to shed your skin. To strip away your protection. To laugh at the wonder of it all. To cry at the sadness of the world. To dip on in, to leave your bones, leave your skin, leave your past, leave your craft and leave your suffering heart.
Or so I'm told.
UPDATE: If you don't know that much about James, I made a playlist of my favorite songs. They may be too obvious for serious James fans, but it's a good introduction to the band.
This evening I did a segment on BBC World News about today's announcement that the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox will play a two-game series in London next year. They allowed me on the air even though I spent most of the day trafficking in the silliest British stereotypes and mocking the monarchy.
Come for me talking about baseball, stay for the Shrek Funko Pop! figurine I had forgotten that my children put on my mantlepiece.
Saturday was Karl Marx' 200th birthday. I hope your party went well. Hope you brought enough cake for everyone, making sure to cut it into equal-sized pieces. If you took too big a piece, I hope someone expropriated it from you.
I make a lot of tongue-mostly-in-cheek Marx and communism jokes. I also own a decent amount of commie kitsch artwork and stuff like that. I have since I was a teenager and didn't know my ass from my elbow when it came to history, economics or political philosophy.
My taste for such things developed as a reaction to growing up in Reagan's America. I am not some sort of revolutionary or iconoclast, and while I'm something of a non-conformist, there is more about me and my life that is unremarkable in that regard than I usually care to admit. Still, when most of America zigged toward materialism and the glorification of business and capitalism in the 1980s, I zagged. It didn't hurt that my father was a government employee and my relatives and the parents of most of my friends were union workers. The cultural zeitgeist of the 1980s tried to tell me that they were what's wrong with America, that simply did not compute, nor has it ever, and thus you get a kid like I was, playing around with subversive ideas even if I didn't understand them.
In college I actually took the time to study history, economics and political philosophy, getting my degree in the latter category. In those courses I read plenty of Marx, Hegel, Smith, Mill, Keynes, Rawls, Weber, Kant and a bunch of other guys. Because I was short-sighted and more influenced by that 1980s materialism than I let on, I ended up going to law school and thus spent a good 14 years zigging back into the glorification of business and capitalism I had zagged away from when I was younger, but I eventually remembered what I cared about and started doing more fulfilling things. Despite the passage of time and a far more relaxed reading regimen than that which I undertook 25 years ago, I feel like I still know enough about all of that political philosophy to at least hold my own when it comes up. Despite some pretty big changes in my life over the past couple of decades, I think I'm more comfortable with where I now stand politically than I ever was before.
There's still something of that high school contrarian in me, though. I often joke that I'm not a Marxist, but I play one on the Internet. There's more than a little bit of truth to that. Despite what people with whom I argue say about me, I'm not a Marxist or a communist. I lean pretty hard to the left and, when I envision an ideal way to set up society it contains a lot more public ownership and regulation than what's viewed as desirable by most folks running things today, but I'm not an actual commie. When I cite Marx or someone like him in an argument or a tweet it's usually for rhetorical purposes or, sometimes, because I'm just goofing around.
It's much easier to pretend to be a Marxist in modern America than to actually be one, of course, for reasons that have very little to do with Marxism itself.
Political philosophies don't have actual public relations firms working for them, but if Marxism did have one it sure as hell did a bad job. Of course, even the best P.R. guy would have a hard time spinning that whole "multiple tyrannical regimes killing millions while claiming to follow your teachings" thing. There isn't a Powerpoint deck or Harry & David gift box that can change a lot of minds about that. It's something that's rather hard to be massaged, as they say.
There is a technically correct defense of Marxism that notes how, actually, those murderous regimes weren't truly practicing Marxism, but you're not gonna win that argument with most people. Shouting "scoreboard" isn't always an intellectually honest way to win an argument, but it sure is a damn effective way of ending one. Leave your "actually, the Soviets weren't Marxists" argument alone, comrade. It's not gonna go well for you in most contexts.
Maybe an even tougher problem for the Marxist P.R. Firm is the fact that, irrespective of the mass murders, Marx's central thesis was discredited in the eyes of most people by events on the ground for a long damn time.
For the bulk of the living memory of the people running things today -- and for the living memory of the parents and teachers of nearly everyone else -- the very foundation of Marxist observation wasn't panning out and seemed hopelessly out of touch with reality. Part of this was because of intentional reforms made to the capitalist system during the Depression and in the postwar period. Stuff like the success of the labor movement and subsequent pro-worker regulations and the advancement of civil rights improved the lives of the folks who Marx predicted would rise up in revolution. Accidents of history helped too, such as, you know, a massive global war decimating the planet, paving the way for insane economic growth in the parts of the world that didn't get bombed to bits. America in the postwar period was a place of so much abundance that the proletariat's chains weren't nearly as uncomfortable as Marx predicted they would be.
Between the murderous tyranny of those waving Marx' banner and the postwar progress in countries like the U.S., it was completely understandable why two or three generations of Americans dismissed Marx completely. Given what could be seen with one's own two eyes, what possible reason would there be to take anything but a derisive look at this seemingly discredited, hirsute radical? It's hard to sell any kind of revolution in that environment.
I think it's fair to say, though, that the America of 1945-1980 was a historical anomaly. The progress of that time, measured in terms of growing economic and social equality and the improving wages and conditions for workers, is the historical exception, not the rule. Since the 1980s the progress we witnessed in that period has been slowed and, in some cases, reversed. Indeed, one of our two major political parties sees reversing that postwar progress as its mission. As a result, we are falling into patterns that have historically persisted.
As was the case in Marx's time (and most other times) a very small number of people own and control most things. Conditions and compensation for workers are degrading. Even people's health and life expectancy is degrading. This is talked about as a crisis -- and and it is a crisis -- but it's not unprecedented. Historically speaking it's merely reversion to the mean. As someone once said, history repeats itself. I'll leave it to the drama critics to decide if its doing so now is tragedy or farce.
Which brings us back to Karl Marx. As a philosopher who sought to put thought into action -- he did not think of himself as some mere thinker; he truly aspired to be a revolutionary -- he was obviously lacking. As Lennon (not Lenin) put it, "we all wanna see the plan." Marx didn't have anything approaching a specific one, those who took up his mantle had some horrifying ones and, as such, we can't took to either Marx or to his followers for instructions on how to set up a good and just society. I am a lot of things, but one of those things is a pragmatist, and this is why I don't call myself a Marxist or a communist. Proof-of-concept matters to me.
That does not, however, mean that we should ignore Marx. His observations about the current capitalist order being thought of by its proponents as inevitable (note: it's not), the flaws and injustices which come with that order (note: there are many), and the need for that order to be reorganized or, at the very least substantially reformed for the good of humanity (note: it is great), are worthy and instructive.
We must contend with those questions. We must ask ourselves whether current conditions are just and optimal and, if not, how they can be improved. To do so, we are obligated to critique capitalism and to rein in its excesses rather than pretend that the capitalist system as currently constructed was ordained by God Almighty and that questioning it is heresy or treason. If it weirds you out to call those observations, critiques and any subsequent reform derived therefrom Marxism, fine, don't call it Marxism. If it weirds you out to even read Karl Marx, well, don't read him (note: Das Kapital is a boring slog, but The Communist Manifesto is a banger). As a child of the Cold War, I get it: commies are bad and evil and even acknowledging their existence makes Lady Liberty cry.
But unless you look at the current economic, social and humanitarian conditions that persist and say "This is great! This is absolutely perfect and we mustn't change a thing!," you must contend with and seek to fix capitalism's flaws. Marx did that first and a lot of folks who are seeking to do that now -- hopefully to more humane and practical effect -- have followed that path.
That may not justify you putting on a fake beard, going to Denny's and asking for a free meal in honor of Marx's birthday, but it does mean you can't dismiss him or pretend that he and his ideas never existed.
In today's Washington Post Jonathan Greenberg writes about how Donald Trump lied his way onto the Forbes' 400 list of the wealthiest Americans back in the early 1980s. It's an amazing story, which illustrates just how insecure, desperate and pathological Trump truly is. It reminds us that, then as now, he possessed no shame whatsoever and would stop at nothing to portray himself as wealthy and powerful, going so far as to disguise his voice and to pretend to be another person in order to appear as something he was not.
While most people are sharing and reacting to that story based on the bald-faced lies Trump told and the audacious things he did in order to make Forbes' list, the story tells a larger and, in my mind, more significant story. It's a story about journalism and American values and about how a certain failure and bankruptcy in both of those things led us to where we are today.
Malcolm Forbes came up with the idea of the Forbes 400 in 1982. The idea was to personalize wealth after decades in which faceless corporate conglomerates dominated the story of American business. Given the circles in which Malcolm Forbes traveled, his personal extravagance and his obvious love of fame and celebrity, it's not surprising that there was more going on here than the mere reporting about powerful business figures.
The Forbes 400 was about elevating and celebrating the wealthy -- many of whom were not, actually, business figures but, rather, heirs -- simply because they were wealthy. It was a gossipy, clickbaity listicle for the pre-Internet age. We all know what MegaCorp Consolidated owns and what it does, but who is its biggest shareholder? How is he special? What makes him tick? More importantly, what does he own? What does he wear, eat, drink, drive and fly? The Forbes 400 constituted an implicit argument for the social value of wealth for its own sake. An argument which kicked off or, at the very least, worked in tandem with the greed-is-good, "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" social and cultural forces ascendent in 1980s America.
It was this culture which gave us Donald Trump. Donald Trump became president because he was famous. He became famous because he was portrayed as rich. He was portrayed as rich because, in the early 1980s, there was a big cultural push -- much larger than Donald Trump -- to celebrate the rich simply for their status of being rich. If that culture did not exist, there would have been no Forbes 400 for Trump to lie to get on to and if there was no Forbes 400, and the culture which surrounded it, it's an open question whether anyone outside of the New York real estate world would've ever heard about Donald Trump. Donald Trump did not lie his way to the presidency on his own. He had a lot of help.
The elevation of the rich for their own sake in the 1980s was not new, of course. Back in the Gilded Age the robber barons were larger-than-life figures, permeating the culture far beyond the business pages. In the Great Depression the names of the wealthy could be found in song lyrics and constituted instantly recognizable references in movies, on stage and on the radio. This elevation of the rich likewise did not stop with the death of Malcolm Forbes and the end of the go-go 1980s. To see how this celebrity-style reporting on the rich and powerful still works, one only need look at the often uncritical coverage of figures like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and, more broadly, the culture of Silicon Valley as something separate, apart and, somehow, more noble and visionary than the mere businessmen and women that they are.
All of which is to say that, however much fun it is to point and laugh at the prospect of a 36-year-old Donald Trump pretending to be something he wasn't, that's not really the big takeaway from today's piece in the Washington Post. We know Trump is a pathological liar and those of us who paid attention to him before he got into politics have known this for years.
The more important questions raised by that article are how and why Trump was given the platform from which to tell his lies in the first place? Who will be the next to take advantage of America's sick and misguided fascination with wealth for its own sake to ascend to a position for which he is clearly unqualified? Finally, when will the media, which utterly failed to push back against the idea that greed is good in the 1980s and has continued to fail in this regard each and every time that ethos has been repackaged for a new era, begin to ask itself why the wealthy are celebrated and considered newsworthy in and of themselves?
Once when I was a little boy, a lightbulb burned out in a lamp in our house. As my dad changed the lightbulb I asked him why they don't make lightbulbs that last forever. He said, "if they did that, the people who make lightbulbs wouldn't make any money."
I didn't think too hard about that answer at the time, but I thought about it right after I read this story from Tae Kim at CNBC, about something a Goldman Sachs analyst wrote in a report to biotech company executives last week.
The report, entitled "The Genome Revolution," asks, "is curing patients a sustainable business model?" The answer is no, at least not in the long run:
"The potential to deliver 'one shot cures' is one of the most attractive aspects of gene therapy, genetically-engineered cell therapy and gene editing. However, such treatments offer a very different outlook with regard to recurring revenue versus chronic therapies. While this proposition carries tremendous value for patients and society, it could represent a challenge for genome medicine developers looking for sustained cash flow."
"People would love a lightbulb that lasts forever," the report basically says, "and it would be great for society. But you would make less money if you made one of those." Except, instead of lightbulbs, it's cures for hepatitis of diabetes or what have you. The report goes on to outline ways these companies could make more money if they focus on chronic therapies rather then cures, not because it's better for the world, but because it's better for the bottom line.
The report hit the news the other day and since then I've seen a good amount of outrage about it on Twitter. It seems perverse to many that an analyst from an investment bank would tell biotech company executives that curing diseases is not as good for "sustained cash flow" as treating a recurring stream of customers who never are cured but always need expensive medical products.
Such outrage is misplaced. Or at least not sufficiently placed. We should not merely or even primarily be outraged at the Goldman Sachs analyst. What he said is completely true. That doesn't get him off the hook, of course, as "I was just doing what I was asked to do" is not, last I checked, a "get out of morality free" card, but that's not the end of the discussion. What's outrageous is that we willingly accept a medical system in which what he wrote in that report can be completely true. One in which "cash flow" rather than "tremendous value for patients and society" is the priority and in which those two things are at odds.
The medical establishment -- including providers, the pharmaceutical industry and biotech firms -- has long been caught in a fundamental dilemma between the need to cure and treat the sick and the pursuit of market-based wealth. These actors have improved and extended the life for millions of people through their products and services, yet the need to make entrepreneurial decisions is frequently at odds with the advancement of public health, particularly the health of the poor. Striking a balance between those allegedly equal imperatives is why biotech firms do things like hire Goldman Sachs analysts to tell them what to do. Well, that and putting the hard, moral and ethical calculations inherent in this dilemma in someone else's hands.
Motives aside, the lines of debate on this tend to break down between (a) pro-market actors arguing that, if not for the profit motive, biotech firms and pharmaceutical companies would not research and develop lifesaving cures and drugs; and (b) those who find profiting off of the lives and health of others to be immoral on the other. The former group tends to believe in the market like the devout believe in a god, believing that it will provide all that we need if we merely have sufficient faith. The latter group is often naive about what, exactly, motivates human beings to do anything.
The market is not just, of course. It creates "winners" and for there to be "winners" there must be "losers." In the context of people's lives and health, the existence of "losers" is obscene. Likewise, most people are not inherently altruistic. Depending on people to simply do the right thing, however noble, is misguided.
Typically at this point in the discussion someone will bring up Jonas Salk, who famously eschewed patenting the polio vaccine despite the fact he could have made billions of dollars if he had. When asked why he did this, Salk famously said that "the people" owned the patent and asked, rhetorically, "would you patent the sun?” Salk truly believed that, by the way. He considered his work to be a "moral commitment" -- his words -- and devoted the rest of his life to trying to make the world a better and healthier place when he could've spent it sitting on boards, hitting the lecture circuit and raking in boatloads of cash. I tend to think he's the exception, not the rule, when it comes to this sort of thinking.
Either way, it did not require someone as altruistic as Salk was for the polio vaccine to be developed. Salk's research, after all, was not free. It was funded by donations from The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis -- the March of Dimes -- which represented a massive mobilization of the public, spurred on strongly by FDR and the federal government. Rather than R&D losses willingly taken in the hopes of future profits to help recoup those costs, the polio vaccine was financed on the front end by hundreds of millions of donations. As I said, Salk truly was an altruist, but it's also the case that if he had patented the vaccine, he'd be double-dipping in a sense. The public, in large part, had already paid for it, the work was done and then society benefitted, massively.
I will not pretend to have all of the answers about how to best structure our medical and public health system. I appreciate that innovators require incentives and funding to innovate and that depending on altruism to solve society's problems is unrealistic. I do not believe, however, that Goldman Sachs analysts are privy to the only means by which innovators can innovate and I do not believe that the market is as omnipotent as Goldman Sachs analysts believe, especially when it comes to public health, where the ultimate rewards are not and should not be financial ones.
Don't believe people when they tell you that taking the profit motive away from science that science will cease to exist. Don't believe them when they tell you that the market will provide optimal outcomes. We have plenty of counterexamples to both of these spurious assertions and we can do better than we are doing to deliver the goods which benefit humanity.
It is being reported this morning that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is not going to run for reelection. I am not surprised in the least.
The modern, allegedly mainstream GOP has never had any interest in leading or governing. Guys like Paul Ryan and the hundreds of cut-rate Reaganites he leads sought power to enrich their wealthy friends and benefactors with ruinous fiscal policy and are now getting out before being held accountable, after which they will no doubt enrich themselves with lobbying or media gigs.
The tell: they never once ran on their actual agenda. Since the day after the 2009 inauguration they ran against ridiculous caricatures of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi and then ran against an even more ridiculous caricature of Hillary Clinton and whatever other liberal boogeymen they could conjure. Now that they have a record of being the party in power, they're quitting rather than face the wrath of voters.
Go back and study the campaigns of guys like Ryan and other GOP leaders and try to find examples of them promising to do what they actually did this past year or so. Find the speeches and ads in which they promised to slash taxes for the wealthy, deprive people of health care, threaten popular social services and eviscerate health, safety and environmental regulations while exploding the deficit and national debt in the manner in which they've done. Maybe you'll find some red meat along those lines to small audiences of party loyalists and donors, but I submit that you will find no examples of guys like Paul Ryan offering details of what would become the American Health Care Act they tried to ram through last year or the tax plan they did, in fact, ram through. You will find ZERO mention of what their 2017-18 legislative agenda has actually done to the budget. Indeed, they ran hard against Democrats on exactly those grounds.
There's a reason for that, of course. Outside of conservative think tanks, Wall Street investment banks and a narrow class of ultra-wealthy people, there is no constituency in this country for slashing the taxes of millionaires, eviscerating the regulatory framework of our nation and taking services away from the poor and middle class. None. People don't want it. There's ample proof of this.
Americans do not want to giveaways to the wealthy, they want investments in the country and in its people. They know that government is often inefficient and wasteful, but they do not consider it their mortal enemy and do not want representatives who have no ideas apart from starving it and the people it serves.
That's exactly what Paul Ryan did as Speaker. And now he's quitting before being held accountable for it. That's no accident. It's by design.
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.
I really enjoyed "Jessica Jones" season 1. Season 2 came out on Thursday and I continue to enjoy it. Beyond the characters and the plots, though, I am fascinated by Jessica's bourbon and whiskey choices.
If you don't know the show, Jessica is a private eye with a lot of past trauma and she drinks . . . a lot. Like, to crazy excess, usually to forget stuff or deal with stress. She often has hangovers but rarely seems drunk, even after drinking an entire bottle in an evening. They don't mention it, but I suspect that since she has super powers she has super tolerance too. Either way, getting the headache but not the buzz seems like a pretty shitty deal for her.
Her brands are what interest me most. Jessica is a brown liquor woman, but she was all over the map with her whiskey choices and I can't watch an episode without noticing what she's drinking and wondering why she, or, rather, the producers, chose it.
In season one she had a different brand every episode. Sometimes multiple brands an episode. Sometimes it was scotch, sometimes bourbon, sometimes Canadian. She occasionally drank some fictitious brands from the prop department. The real products came from multiple distillers. In light of all of that I don't suspect that any of those bottles were there by virtue of product placement.
If it was product placement it was pretty crappy product placement for the distilleries involved. For example, in one episode she asks a convenience store clerk for "the cheapest you got." He sells her Wild Turkey 101, which is not the cheapest he or anyone else has. I doubt Wild Turkey would like to have 101 portrayed as rotgut if it was paying to have its bottle featured. In the next episode she's drinking Old Grandad and earlier drank Beam, Teacher's and freakin' Cutty, so she obviously does know where to get cheaper stuff. She's a detective!
For the first two episodes of season two, she drinks only Tin Cup. Because the exclusivity and because the bottle and its label are shown so prominently, I suspected that Tin Cup had paid for exclusive rights for the much more anticipated Season 2. But . . . nah. In episode three she's back to Four Roses yellow label. Again, though, if Tin Cup did pay for that placement, they may not care for how it was used. Jessica drinks it like water -- at one point she literally fills a 10 ounce water class with the stuff, straight up and chugs -- and at another point she has a nightmare where she's hooked up to a Tin Cup IV, the bourbon flowing straight into her veins. There's no such thing as bad publicity I guess, but I feel like a distiller wouldn't want to have its brand being used explicitly to show how much of a problem drinker a character is. "Drink Tin Cup: the preferred brand for functioning alcoholics everywhere!"
If it isn't product placement, I don't understand all of the switching. Sure, a whiskey enthusiast may get a different bottle every time, but Jessica isn't someone you'd call a whiskey enthusiast. She's a drunk. Or at least a wannabe drunk. I've known some drunks in my time. If they're like Jessica and they are (a) functional; and (b) at least make a passable living, so that they don't have to take whatever they can get, they tend to have brand loyalty. Or at least price point loyalty. Even if they do change up brands, they don't bounce from bourbon to scotch to rye the way she does.
Last season some sites like Buzzfeed kept track of what she was drinking. I am only three episodes into season 2 -- it's a treadmill show for me, so it's a one a day thing, not something I, uh, binge -- but I'm gonna continue to keep track myself. I'm more fascinated in this than I am in the shady forces Jessica Jones is fighting. She'll beat them in the end. I have no idea what's gonna happen with the next bottle.
I spend a lot of time browsing real estate websites. I'm not in the market to move. I'm not coveting a big fancy house or anything. I just find it fascinating to see how much house is available for how much in whatever place I happen to be thinking about or whatever place I have just passed through. It's a time-killer more than anything.
This morning I found myself looking at San Francisco real estate. Given how stupidly expensive it is there, I limited my search to apartments and condos under 1,500 square feet in a neighborhood I'm somewhat familiar with, Alamo Square/Divisadero. I stayed there on a trip a couple of years ago and it just sprang to mind.
I found a place that caught my eye. The sort of place I often think about moving into once my kids go away to college: an old apartment building with character in a walkable neighborhood. Multiple places, actually, as the building, which has recently been renovated, had several 1-2 bedroom units for sale, all of which retained just enough historic elements to bring one joy but sufficient modern conveniences to make life pleasant. This is it:
That's about as San Francisco as you can get, right?
It's San Francisco in price too, obviously, as the cheapest place -- an 800 square foot one bedroom -- is over $800K and the larger ones range from $1 million to nearly $2 million. That's pretty silly in most of the rest of the country, but if you're familiar with the San Francisco real estate market you realize it's par for the course. Heck, within that world these places are probably something of a bargain if you can believe it. In related news, my desire to move to San Francisco, once quite strong, disappeared about 10 years ago.
Normally at this point I'd click out of Zillow and move on to more productive things. Something about that building was sticking with me, though, so I decided to do some searching to see what else I could find out about it. The first non-real estate listing I found was this story at Hoodline.com from early 2015. In relevant part:
1500 McAllister St., one of the buildings damaged in the fire which raged near Alamo Square last month, has been purchased by SF real estate mogul Russell Flynn. The fire affected approximately 17 units and displacing 25 residents, including two families with small children, and the future remains uncertain for the displaced residents . . . Flynn may be known to Hoodline readers as the owner of 493 Haight Street, located on the corner on Haight and Fillmore. That same building burned down in a fiery blaze in 2011, and took two years to rebuild.
I don't know if this Flynn character, who at the time owned thousands of rental units in San Francisco, still owns the building or if he flipped it to the people now selling the expensive condos. I have no comment whatsoever about that last paragraph, in which I detect an insinuation which some of the commenters to the article took up afterward. Safer to leave that sort of thing alone.
I do know, though, that those residents with the rent-controlled apartments from early 2015 all appear to be long gone. I also know that the owner now stands to make several million dollars on the sales of these nice units, each of which carry with them HOA fees that are probably around what the rents used to be on the apartments. Talk about a windfall, right?
I do know one other thing, and I know it for certain: You cannot have a functioning civil society in cities in which only the rich can afford to live.
If the only people who can buy or rent in your city are executives, professionals and single twenty somethings either living five to a house or working 80 hours a week down in Silicon Valley, your city is not whole. For a city to be whole it has to include construction workers and cashiers and firemen and librarians and store clerks and teachers and bartenders and cab drivers. It has to include people with families. It has to have room for both the rich and the poor, the white collar and the blue collar. It cannot rely on a refugee work force trekking into the city from an hour or two away each day and leaving it each night.
After thinking through all of this, I clicked back on the listings for 1500 McAllister Street. I looked at the lovely bay windows, high ceilings and wood floors. I admired the classic exterior. Then I took a virtual walk through the neighborhood via Google Street View, and passed by the nice bars, shops and cafes I went to when I visited there a couple of years ago. I imagined my stuff in one of those apartments and I imagined sitting in one of those cafes, maybe with my laptop, procrastinating on an article I was being paid to write by sending an email off to one of my kids, away at college. I then left the cafe and headed back toward "home," but not before ending up at Alamo Square, a block away, looking out over the Painted Ladies at the San Francisco skyline.
And I wondered how such a beautiful city got so broken.
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?
This morning I saw this:
I figured I'd make a joke. In response I tweeted "A secure job with benefits, a living wage and a pension?"
Not the greatest joke in the world, but they can't all be winners.
Quickly, I got this response:
And yes, that "socialism" was meant as a criticism.
It's one thing to demonize individual components of what was once America's labor landscape, such as unions, employer-provided benefits and the minimum wage. The right has been doing that for years. It's quite another thing to be so brainwashed by conservative dogma that you see an essential component of the social contract and that which created the American middle class -- people having good, secure, jobs -- as a bad thing, full stop. Yet here we are. My correspondent here is not alone, by the way. I've seen many, many people push back against the proposition that good jobs with benefits and stuff is good for America.
This is all part and parcel of Republicans turning terms like "liberal" and "socialism" and "union" into rank epithets. It's an effort that seemingly cannot and will not cease. Now it must extend to things like a living wage and pensions and job security. Never mind that your father and grandfather were able to make a good life for themselves and their family as a result of those things. Some people on the left like 'em, though, and people on the left are evil commies, so they must be bad things too!
Democrats are complicit in this, of course. As I discussed at length in my last post, in the 1980s they had no idea how to respond to the sophistry of using words like "liberal" as an epithet and they got creamed at the polls as a result. Since 1992 Democrats have moved heaven and Earth to avoid being called those sort of names. "Ha, ha!" Bill Clinton and his acolytes exclaimed. "You will never again win elections simply by calling us liberals! We've outflanked you!"
Except it wasn't just a matter of ducking the labels. Democrats, since Clinton was first elected, have disclaimed their identities as "liberals," yes, but they have likewise abandoned a huge part of their values and platform to better inoculate themselves against the name-calling. They stopped zealously advocating for workers and for the poor. They've supported right to work laws and private equity and executives and Wall Street interests whose goals are antithetical to working people. With few exceptions, they've had no answer or response to the crisis of employment in this country, characterized by people being transformed from employees to contractors with a precipitous decline in wages, benefits and job security.
I don't know how to solve all of those problems, but I do know that they are huge problems that must be solved lest America turn into an oligarchy in which the rich and powerful own and control everything and everyone else just begs for scraps. Problems of which ordinary Americans are all too aware and from which they are increasingly suffering but there are scant few political leaders willing to listen and willing to fight for their interests.
You ask why someone like Bernie Sanders could mount a credible challenge to Hillary Clinton? It's because there is a hunger for leaders willing to address this growing crisis. You ask why so many working people support a person like Donald Trump? It's because, however little he actually believed what he was saying and how bankrupt his ideas to solve them were, he did say things that acknowledged the crisis. While politicians contort themselves and their values in order not to be accused of being too liberal or too conservative or whatever, most people don't care about the labels like liberalism, progressivism, socialism, populism, you name it. They just want someone who will listen to them and help them make their lives better.
As I've been writing in this space over the past few months, we're in the process of a political realignment in this country. One in which working people, the poor and those who understand that there is more to life than the accumulation of wealth and more to government than the protection of the wealthy are, increasingly, finding their interests aligned. That's the case even if they have, historically, fallen on the opposite sides of the Republican/Democratic divide. Absurd things like someone calling out people advocating for good jobs as a bad thing is evidence that decades-old political programming is on auto-pilot now, divorced from what people actually desire and what is actually good for America.
Thinking America is better when people have a secure job with benefits, a living wage and a pension should not be a controversial idea. Those who believe it is are soon going to find themselves on the wrong side of the ongoing political realignment. Those who don't are going to find a lot of people to support them.
Today Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that he was rescinding Obama-era directives to U.S. Attorneys General ordering them not to target marijuana businesses in states which had legalized recreational marijuana such as Colorado, Oregon, Nevada and California. The move plunges marijuana-related businesses into legal uncertainty and will, no doubt, lead to a major backlash from state governments, small businesses and American citizens.
Why is Sessions and, by extension, the Trump Administration, doing this? Two reasons. One moral, one political. The moral component of it will get all of the attention, but it sort of bores me. The political one is far, far more significant. Indeed, I think it's a harbinger of a new political realignment I've been discussing in this space in recent months. A realignment which will do untold political damage to Sessions, Trump and those who follow their lead, be they Republicans or Democrats.
Let's quickly dispense with the morality of it: Sessions is obsessed with keeping marijuana illegal. He's long been on record about this. He believes it's a dangerous scourge that leads to crime and depravity and has vowed to stamp out its use. His move today will cause everyone to man their marijuana battle stations again. Sessions and his fellow moralists will offer their Joe Friday-meets-Nancy Reagan talking points, complete with citations to debunked studies of the dangers of marijuana. Everyone else will talk up the benefits of legalized weed and the desirability of normalized drug laws and decriminalization. We've heard all of this before. The former group is simply wrong, the latter is correct and it's ridiculous we even have this debate anymore. I'll leave it for others to take up again.
Not everyone is a zealot like Sessions. Most politicians who oppose marijuana legalization do so out of political calculation. There's one problem with this, though: polling shows that far more people support legalization than oppose it. Indeed, as Five Thirty Eight noted today, a record high 64 percent of Americans favor legalizing marijuana. And it's not just lefties. Fifty-one percent of Republicans favor legalization. Given that politicians who make political calculations tend to make them in a way that favors going in with what the majority of people or, at the very least, a majority of what their constituents want, why would these guys continue to oppose legalization?
I believe they do so because of inertia. Inertia born of the political alignment of the past 40-50 years in which politicians have constantly fought and refought the culture wars that broke out in the 1960s. A war that, given all of the advances in women's rights, civil rights, gay rights and the overall liberalization of American culture since the 1950s, most believe was won by the liberals, but by purely political measures, was really won by conservatives and reactionaries. At the very least it is the conservatives and reactionaries who have controlled the discourse in these areas since at least 1980 and, in turn, have caused Democrats to opportunistically tack to the right.
It's this dynamic what has put us in the rather absurd place we're in today, with marijuana legalization and a whole host of other issues. Those who recognize this absurdity and break its cycle will find that those 1960s-era culture wars are not worth fighting anymore and that a new political alignment awaits them.
It took a hell of a lot of work, protest and, often, bloodshed to get there, but it's fair to say that liberalizing forces were ascendant in our national politics as the 1960s turned into the 1970s. The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were passed. Medicare and Medicaid came online. Welfare and anti-poverty programs, however flawed they were or eventually became, had public support. Public arts, sciences and humanities initiatives, came into being. Environmental and consumer protection programs and agencies had real power and asserted real authority. Prison and legal reform efforts took root. Even Nixon and his gang didn't put much of a stop to it. They had other things on their mind.
None of which is to say that these initiatives were uniformly successful. There were lots of flaws, inefficiencies and wrong turns when it came to this stuff, some of it bureaucratic, some of it structural. While those flaws would be challenging enough to overcome in and of themselves, America also saw its crime rate rise and a couple of disastrous oil embargoes and recessions hit, one of which -- from 1973-75 -- that hit pretty damn hard. These crisis, poorly addressed by Presidents Ford and Carter, created an opportunity for conservative forces led by Ronald Reagan. Forces which began to roll back the progress achieved since the 1960s and which began to recast the nature of political discourse in this country.
If you win an election or two, you get the right to set the agenda, and that's what Reagan did after 1980. He cut taxes, social programs and regulations while massively increasing military spending and enacting laws and regulations that put the interest of business and the wealthy first. He likewise encouraged and enabled the ascension of religious and cultural conservatives who launched a war, in policy and rhetoric, against that which they considered undesirable and immoral. The word "liberal" soon became an epithet and liberal and progressive values were cast as un-American or, in some cases, anti-American.
One can argue about the prudence or success of Reagan's policies, and one can take issue with the manner in which opposition to his agenda was cast as un-American, but one cannot argue with the success of his undertaking.
Reagan cruised to an easy reelection in 1984 and his successor, George H.W. Bush, cruised to victory in 1988. These victories were almost always occasioned by the victor taking up the mantle of so-called Real Americans who were shocked and offended by everything that had happened in this country between 1960 and 1980. He and those who followed him made the promise, sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit, that they would return America to the way it was before that time. To that end, Reagan and his acolytes would bash working women and single mothers. They'd demonize minorities as criminals or as insufficiently subordinate. They'd scapegoat gays for a public health crisis that they themselves refused to acknowledge or address. They'd blame drugs -- at least certain drugs -- for societies' ills.
Democrats who tried to fight back against all of this were routinely trounced at the polls. It was pretty understandable, actually. The vast majority of active voters in the 1980s either came of age before the 1960s and didn't much like what they saw before Reagan came on the scene or made a lot of money in the 1980s and thus felt adequately compensated for leaving their youthful ideals in the past. People vote with their hearts just as much as their heads and the story of America that Reagan was telling them either made them feel better or made them rich. That's the heart and the head.
By the time the 1990s rolled around the Democrats had a serious goddamn problem on their hands. How do you fight political opponents who control both the hearts and the minds of the majority of the electorate? How do you take on forces of seemingly overwhelming superiority?
The answer: guerrilla warfare.
Bill Clinton and the New Democrats knew better than to launch a full frontal assault on Reagan's shining city on the hill or to relitigate the cultural battles of the 1960s and 70s. Those fights would be too hard. Rather than fight on those extraordinarily wide fronts, they would focus on tactics. They'd adopt a strategy of triangulation in which they'd pick some narrow battles in which they had a clear advantage while avoiding being dragged into fights they didn't feel comfortable having. They did so, in large part, by doing what guerrilla armies often do: going underground and trying to blend in.
Reagan and Bush could find success by casting their opponents as hopeless hippies or mindless moonbats, but what could they do when their opponents looked . . . a lot like they did? When they went out of their way to demonize criminals and the poor and to talk even tougher on drugs than they did? When the manner in which they favored banks and corporate interests were, more or less, indistinguishable from the way in which they themselves did? It was an impossible challenge, especially in a tough economic year like 1992. Clinton hammered Bush on his inability to feel the economic pain of ordinary Americans, Bush's efforts to portray Clinton as Mondale or Dukakis or McGovern or Carter were unconvincing and Clinton rode to victory.
Since 1992, Democratic politicians have almost uniformly aped the Clinton model. They have heavily emphasized their superficial economic differences with Republicans, mostly outflanked them in attracting the support of Wall Street and the entertainment and technology sectors and have done whatever they could to avoid taking bold or controversial stances on cultural matters unless or until public opinion led them to do so first (in which case they're, by definition, no longer bold or controversial stances).
The Democrats have found a lot more success with this tactical focus than they had back when they ran on progressive principles in the 1980s, but it has come at a huge price. For one thing, once you start playing the triangulation game, you have to keep finding new, seemingly fresh ways in which to contrast yourself with your opponents in the service of triangulation. Some of them -- like positioning the party as the best and only advocate for women, minorities and people of color -- are laudable. Others, like positioning the party as something akin to a consumer product -- the choice of celebrities and cool kids! -- are embarrassing and counterproductive. At the end of the day politics is about advancing a policy agenda and you gotta stand for something. Preferably something bold and visionary, not just something that can win you an election if everything breaks just right.
For their part, Republicans, generally speaking, have tracked further and further to the right economically and culturally, increasingly dependent on religious conservatives and, beginning in 2016, a quite small but newly bold and unapologetic contingent of white supremacists. People playing Ronald Reagan's game of castigating progressivism and trying to turn the word "liberal" into an epithet while still trying to fight those 1960s culture wars.
That has left us, politically, in more or less the same place we've been for decades: Republicans trying to paint Democrats as irresponsible hippies and moonbats and Democrats desperately trying to change the subject because they fear that such charges might stick. It's a matter of inertia. It's also madness.
It's certainly something which extends into our leaders' absurd views about marijuana legalization, with people like Jeff Sessions thinking that they can smoke out some hippies on the issue and use their support of pot legalization against them politically, playing up to the Silent Majority back home. Meanwhile, people like Hillary Clinton have taken a cautious, even calculated approach to the issue, seemingly more worried about protecting themselves from attack by cultural conservatives than in having a coherent set of principles on the matter.
It shouldn't be this way. Pretty soon it won't be.
As I wrote recently in reference to the tax bill, we're in the midst of a major political realignment in this country. Whereas, for decades, we had conservatives vs. liberals, right vs. left, Republicans vs. Democrats, those political fault lines are shifting. The policies of the current Republican government overwhelmingly benefit the rich, leaving the poor -- including poor people who call themselves Republicans -- in the dust. Likewise, many who call themselves Democrats -- including those in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street -- are doing just fine under Trump and a Republican Congress and are not likely to support Democratic candidates who would upset their lucrative apple carts, even if it would help most Americans.
Soon, if it has not happened already, these labels and these party affiliations are going to change to reflect the true political fault lines in this country, which primarily fall along lines of class, race, age and opportunity. On one side will be those who are interested in making the lives of most Americans, the poor and the middle class, people of color as well as white people, women as well as men, better. On the other side are those whose primary interest is in supporting business or the wealthy or those already in power or place of privilege.
Legalized marijuana may not, historically, be a needle-moving issue, but politicians who either dismiss it or auto-pilot the debate about it into that old culture war territory do so at their peril, for the electorate is quickly realigning itself with respect to marijuana as well.
All of which is to say that, when it comes to the matter of marijuana legalization, our politicians are hopelessly out of step with what the people want. Just as they are increasingly out of step with what they want with respect to all manner of cultural and economic issues. Out of step due to their devotion to a political arrangement that, however well it served them for several decades, is approaching obsolescence.
Those politicians who understand this will be our future leaders. Those who prefer to fight old wars will be left in the dust of history.