Some Reality for the Midterms

I’m tired of arguments over whether Republicans or Democrats are better managers of the economy.  The situation for the midterms is starker than that. 

In this election cycle we are parallel to 2014, a mid-term election with an open Presidential election to follow.  What did the Republican Party do with their power between 2014 and 2016?  They shut down government with the “balanced budget amendment” nonsense (forgotten immediately under Trump) in order to cause national pain for the 2016 election.  That is no exaggeration—it was deliberate policy.  The student loan crisis and the pain in “flyover” districts were direct results.

In 2022 we are at an economically delicate moment—trying to control inflation without a serious downturn.  A Republican Congress will do exactly what they did last time—shut down government (this time in the name of inflation) to make sure things get worse for 2024.  Given the risks of the moment, the consequences can be dire. 

We can either elect a Congress interested in avoiding the worst, or we can elect a Congress dedicated to provoking a recession and making sure it lasts. 

Education—Student Loan Debt and the Rest

The public discussion of Biden’s student loan plan seems to be about some other country—certainly not this one.

Much of the discussion takes the point of view that Biden’s plan is a wildly-expensive and unnecessary change, since post-secondary education is functioning the way it always has.  And further the plan isn’t sufficiently targeted to the poor, so there is no point in doing it.

In fact post-secondary education in this country is so broken you hardly know where to start.  And the people targeted by the plan were so badly screwed by us that we have a responsibility to notice. 

Let’s look at the history.  The following chart is a point of departure:

It’s obvious from the chart that around 2008 something happened to the cost of college—it took off.  A prime ingredient was the George Bush’s 2008 crash, which was a double whammy:  states had less money to spend—so tuition went up—and students and their parents had less money to pay it.  As we all learned during the Covid crisis, states have limited ability to deal with new expenses, as many are prohibited from running deficits.  They need to rely on the federal government to help them out. 

However the Republican Congress blocked all stimulus (remember the “balanced budget amendment”) to provoke dissatisfaction for the 2016 election.  So there was no help to be had.   Unsurprisingly people had to take on new levels of debt.  And with Republicans continuing to sabotage the recovery, there were few jobs for these people when they graduated (or didn’t) and went immediately into arrears.  Student load debt didn’t grow because students were irresponsible, it grew because government was.

Adding to that, Republicans spent years protecting fraudulent private pseudo-educational institutions because of the supposed superiority of the private sector.  At such places you could earn a degree in “culinary arts”, for example, which was considered valueless in any real restaurant.   Essentially all students at those institutions incurred monumental levels of debt and no skills.  The worst of those have now been shut down, but Betsy DeVos did everything she could to defend them.

As a country we screwed a generation of students.  From the numbers on the chart, $10 or $20 thousand seems relevant, but assuredly not profligate. As for inflation, the risk has been exaggerated by false comparison to the stimulus packages.  The cost here is budgeted over decades; its current impact is minimal.

However we should be clear that this is a Band-Aid on a God-awful wound, because for the most part things have only gotten worse.

First of all, averaging over all institutions in the country gets a rather diverse mix of good and bad colleges. That’s appropriate for addressing needs of borrowers.  However If you want to go to a good institution to get yourself a good job, the numbers are basically twice what’s on the chart:  around $20 thousand yearly for a good public institution.   For private colleges, we can be more exact since they act as a cartel:  $80K.   Even applying to these places can cost thousands.  So much for equality of opportunity. 

What’s more the public university system, instead of being strengthened, is under attack.  That’s not just a matter of the well-publicized politization of education, bad as that is.   Public funding in many states has been reduced to the point that public colleges are admitting out-of-state (or out-of-country) students in preference to in-state ones, because they need the extra money.  That has actually become a major contributor to student loan debt!  The financial situation is so dire that colleges are spending more on administrators to raise money than on education itself.

All of that sounds like a hard problem, but as with healthcare, just about every other developed country has found a way to do it.  We need to strengthen the public system with necessarily more of a role for federal funding.  Public education has to be first-rate and affordable—and available to everyone in every state.  We’ve got to banish the preposterous model of education as a severely-limited resource with parents ready to kill to get their children into the right places!  In addition we need to limit the size of loans people need to take and be rational about the payback.  The Australian system, with payback based on ability to pay, is one working option.

It’s worth stating the obvious fact that with the current cost of education, the only way we’re keeping this country going is by importing foreign graduates (and telling them how much we hate their being here!).  We’d have to shut down Silicon Valley otherwise.  We should also be clear that when we talk about national security we’re talking not about aircraft carriers but about our national competence in key technologies.

It is also worth stressing the problem is NOT (despite rumblings from both the left and the right) that we’re sending too many people to college.  Good jobs need sophisticated training.  You can look at the government’s own (or anyone else’s) expectations of the jobs we’re going to need to fill.  Sure there should be more specifically vocational training also, but that’s not the answer to the problem we know we’ve got. Also we’ve learned from the Covid experience that online instruction is no silver bullet to replace teachers.

Finally it’s worth responding to the charge that we’re not sufficiently targeting our payments to the poor.  The fact is that the only route to equality of opportunity is making sure that there is a first-class system available to everyone.  We used to understand that.  We were the first to recognize that secondary education needed to be available to everyone.  Eventually other countries caught on, because there was a big advantage to the country in doing it.

This has been proven so many times it’s ridiculous to have to state it—education is the backbone of the strength of the country.  Despite some rhetoric, there’s nothing either left-wing or right-wing about this. Even Adam Smith knew it—he didn’t futz around wondering how little training poor people could get by with, he wanted universal literacy in the eighteenth century.  If we want to succeed as a nation, we need to succeed at education.

Propagandists for Power

This note is occasioned by John McWhorter’s piece in the NY Times, basically praising Clarence Thomas as a thinker who has been too easily dismissed.

While I agree with Mr. McWhorter on some subjects, I think he is very wrong on this one.  And his mistake is the same one made by other people about other public figures.

First about Clarence Thomas:

  • He is someone who has received help every step of his career, but who has nonetheless declared himself self-made.  His autobiography is emphatic to the point of absurdity on the subject. 
  • His general philosophy is heavily influenced by that mythology.  Like many other pseudo-self-made people (there are admittedly more rich than poor of them), he asserts “I did it, so can anyone else who has what it takes.”  No one should be asking government for help.  That he sincerely believes this does not make it either true or admirable.
  • Despite his self-delusions, he has not achieved his success as a thinker.  He has achieved success as a propagandist for power.  His ideas, however well or badly thought-out, are irrelevant to his current position.  He is a tool in the Koch organization’s (and Republican party’s) battle plan.  The position being propagated is simple and convenient:  we just don’t have to care.
  • Contrary to what you sometimes read in the papers, he has not driven the Supreme Court to its current position on the extreme right.  That is a Koch-managed and funded enterprise that has put a succession of Federalist Society judges on the Court.

We should now talk more generally.  There were places and times in the past when people seemed at least worried about selling out.  That is, whether they were putting personal advantage above some notion of morality.

We are no longer at that place or time.  In the United States (and elsewhere) today, there is no morality stronger than financial success.  People don’t need to agonize anymore, because riches are proof of morality.  That’s the Clarence Thomas problem, and he is far from the only example.

I’d even put Milton Friedman in that category (along with a good chunk of the Federalist Society).  Milton Friedman was certainly capable of understanding the logical flaw in his argument:  it’s okay to declare that corporations serve their stockholders—but only if someone else is minding the store.  If those same corporations are also running government, then no one is minding the store.  Instead he made himself a wealthy and respected genius, again as a propagandist for power.

No one should be venerating propagandists for power, no matter how sincere such people believe themselves to be.

Democracy’s Enemies are No One’s Friends

Today about half the United States electorate seems to think that the end of democracy would be great—they could just keep on winning.  It’s not said enough: that’s a fallacy regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum.  The end of democracy means the end of leverage.

As history has proved over and over again, the winners when democracy dies are the real elites who hold power.  In this case were talking about the Kochs, the Thiels, the Mercers, the Murdochs.  In the absence of democracy, no functioning elections means no power for anyone else.  All other leverage is gone.

Those people have been very clear about what that means.  What they want is what’s good for them.  No taxes on rich people and corporations.  No regulation.  No government services they don’t need—that is no social security, no Medicare, two-tier education, nothing for climate, no safety net.   Back to the glory days of the nineteenth century, when businesses could get away with anything.

For now a section of the population finds common cause with those people on guns and abortion, but those were never the main issues.   The only reason we’re talking about those issues today is that we do have a democracy today and voting matters.  Guns and abortion are a path to power, but not a commitment to support anyone in any way.

Once democracy goes, we’ll have nothing to say.  And nothing is what everyone—both their supporters and their opponents—is going to get.

Down with Monotheism

Monotheism amounts to an imperialistic assertion of primacy.  That sounds like one of those wild-eyed slogans from the radical left or right.  But in fact it is a simple statement of what drives quite a lot of policy, both domestic and international.

Let’s start close to home.   In both Britain and the US there is a big problem with past imperial grandeur.  The Brits just can’t get over their lost empire, and they keep doing completely illogical and crazy things (e.g. Brexit) in hopes of getting it back.  The fact that the world has changed since then, with new powers and new bases for strength doesn’t register.  Since the empire is taken to be an expression of British superiority (and of God’s grace raining down on Britain) there is no reason why it can’t just happen again.  There is only one God and he’s ours.

The US has a similar problem, just a little later in time.  We had the 1950’s and even 60’s when in the years following the destruction of the World War II the US was unquestionably the world’s only remaining superpower.  If anything we were more dominant than the British as their peak.  And we’re just as blind in looking back to it.  Our dominance was a result of national superiority and God’s grace.   We are the chosen rulers of the world and there’s nothing that ought to stop that.

The Chinese and the Russians have similar issues.  Having lived in Italy at one point, there’s more than a bit of it (going back several centuries) there too.

The Old Testament (as I understand it) had a more limited notion of monotheism:  each nation had it’s own god or gods and international struggles were also struggles of those gods.  That sounds a little more accurate.  Contemporary monotheism amounts to assertions of primacy.  An astounding percentage of Americans are ready to talk about God’s protective shield over the US and our God-given role in running the rest of the world.  That gets in the way of any notion international cooperation or any workable national objectives.  With God on your side, reality just doesn’t matter.

The Brits have already driven themselves to at least a short-term future of poverty.  It is relevant to notice—although seldom mentioned—that the pre-EO version of Britain was much slower than the continent in recovering from World War II and generally poorer per capita. 

The US is on the brink of doing the same thing.  We’ve got a dictatorial theocracy going, as well as a “we don’t need anyone” ethos on the right that denies any need to interact with the rest of the world except under terms of dominance.  Furthermore the pervasive xenophobia denies the (currently enormous) contribution of foreigners to the economic strength of the US.

However the biggest problems are not even that.  As climate change and also Covid and the Ukraine crisis show us, we have only one world.  All the national gods are going to have to cooperate if we’re going to get out of this mess.  Enough with national monotheism.

We’re Doing Climate—Next the Court

Schumer and Manchin seem finally to have reached agreement on meaningful climate action. If we can do that, the next step has got to be reforming the Supreme Court.

This Court is responsible for even more than it gets blamed for.  Roe v Wade is the tip of the iceberg.  This court is dedicated to the project of overturning democracy by enforcing and maintaining minority rule.

That starts with the defense of gerrymandering.  This is the single most important factor in the polarization of the political environment—a political minority is given vastly exaggerated and untouchable power.  Punting to Congress is a joke, since that asks the beneficiaries to give up power. To that gets added Citizens United and the provocatively-announced ruling on “replacement electors.”

As both Alito and Thomas have made clear, this court has decided to use its unchallenged power to rule—and the proper response of the population should be obedience. Democracy has no place is this vision.

Changing the Court’s size is a matter that requires majorities in both houses of Congress and the President.  Democrats have that.  Taking that action is not radical.   What is radical is a rogue Supreme Court that is using it’s unchallengable powers to rule—certainly not the intention of the founding fathers.  It should of course be noted who is actually rulling—the Koch organization that created and managed the  Federlist Society, to which all conservative justices have dedicated their careers.

This is a chance to save democracy in this country.  Second only to saving the planet.

The Mid-Terms are It

There’s nothing particularly novel about this conclusion, but it still needs to be said over and over again. There is only one objective now: the midterm elections. With the current activist Supreme Court there’s no telling how much damage will be done in two years or what elections will look like in 2024.

This Supreme Court has asserted it’s right to impose a belligerent, unpopular theocracy. And that’s just the beginning. The conservative justices all come from the Koch organization’s Federalist Society, whose end goal is business control of government and elimination of all regulation and social services. That may sound far-fetched, but so did the complete elimination of Roe v Wade.

The Court has pointedly said it would review state plans for “alternative electors.” That would potentially allow gerrymandered legislatures to override electoral results. Such proposals are crafted to give all electoral power to those gerrymandered legislatures–even governors (some are Democrats) have no say. This Court is controlled by Republicans in the mold of Mitch McConnell. They have no qualms about doing what’s best for them, and they can hide (as usual) behind calling it states’ rights. With enough states tied up in this way, it may well become impossible to elect anyone but a Koch-approved President.

The Supreme Court has to be reformed before it completes its takeover of the country. That requires workable majorities in both the House and Senate, which sounds like a heroic task. However the point is not that it’s easy; the point is that there is an actual path to saving the country from the Koch coup. There are enough seats up for grabs in the Senate. Retaining the House will be harder.

For the House people have just got to realize what’s at stake. Roe v Wade is bad enough as it is, but it’s also a sign of what’s coming. No labor protections, no help for the environment, no government role for healthcare or Social Security. The USA as Brazil, with all but a few of us living in the slums of Rio and ready to be undone by climate change.

We have an opportunity to preserve our country before it’s turned into something unrecognizeable. And that’s not just for Democrats. This is a new bout of Prohibition with religious vigilantes telling everyone how to live their lives. And the powers pushing hardest for gun rights really want those guns in the hands of private Pinkerton militias, just like in the good old days of the nineteenth century. The Koch people are nobody’s friends.

This year is it. Forget everything else. It’s amazing we have a chance.

Women in Mozart’s Operas

It’s hard to think about anything other than politics these days, but sometimes it helps to think about something completely innocuous.

For what it’s worth, I’m going to talk about Mozart operas.  There are reasons to do that.

First of all, the four big Mozart operas (Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi Fan Tutte, Magic Flute) represent an incredible level of artistic achievement.  They are part of everyone’s cultural patrimony, and anyone who hasn’t had the experience is missing out.   (This version of the Marriage of Figaro is free on YouTube, and this DVD is both good and cheap.)

Next is the fact that opera is an unusual discipline in that different composers have had such different ideas about it, that the results are simply not the same thing.  Opera goes way back as a formalized way to combine music and drama, but the modern notion of a fully-formed musical drama was created by Mozart with the Marriage of Figaro in 1786.  The nineteenth century took that form and ran with it, but in quite a different direction.  While Mozart operas are about people, the nineteenth century went mythic.  With Wagner and even Verdi the characters and spectacle become larger than life.  In that sense the four big Mozart operas represent an unsurpassed peak of form.

Those four big operas are about—respectively—rape, murder, love, and religion.  That covers a lot of territory, but there are certain common threads.  The primary one that I want to talk about here is the presentation of the woman’s point of view.   The reason to do this is that generations of male opera producers have frequently lost track of this thread, to the detriment of their productions.   It is an odd fact of the opera business that the fixation on spectacle is such that people don’t seem to look for common threads.  So there can be whole traditions of wrong-headedness!

We’ll start with the Marriage of Figaro.  Why is a “marriage” opera about rape?  Because the plot turns on the so-called “droit de seigneur”, the right of a noble master to get a first night with any female subject who gets married.  That’s one good definition of rape, and the opera is concerned with the efforts of master’s wife and the coming bride to avoid it.  For this opera it’s their game and the several men in the picture mostly just get in the way.  There’s no way to misinterpret this one.  There’s even a minor aria (Act 4 Scene 4) on unequal justice in male-female relations.

However things already get confused with the second opera Don Giovanni.  Don Giovanni is Don Juan, a brave and powerful nobleman who accepts no constraints on his behavior and is infinitely successful in seductions of women.   In the opera he kills the father of one of them and is eventually dragged down to Hell as a result. 

Opera productions and criticism tend to focus on the power and heroic amorality of the title role, and you can argue that position by noting the contrasting weakness of the other male characters.  But that’s ignoring most of the opera.   What’s remarkable about this retelling of the Don Juan story is that it spends much more time with the women than the men.  

The Don Juan character is here with all his personal strengths, but at the same time this is also a retelling of the Marriage of Figaro story (exchanging the “droit du seigneur” for power- and class-based seduction), and it’s the women in this opera who have to pick up the pieces.  To see Mozart’s intent you just have to follow the music.  The women are the ones onstage trying with difficulty to live in the world that the male characters have created.   The power relationships are made clear in both words and music for the seduction scenes.   And all of the women have stature; Donna Elvira’s second aria is a particularly remarkable example. She starts as a comic character, and grows until she gets a kind of credo aria. Don Giovanni may be dragged down to hell for murder, but the women have to go on.

It is wrong to view this opera as Don Giovanni’s story exclusively.  Despite many productions and much music criticism to the contrary, the women’s stories are equally important.  As examples of the opposite, I’ve seen productions where all three female characters were undercut:  It was not Mozart’s idea that Donna Anna was merely another conquest making a fuss, or that Zerlina was a slut, or that Donna Elvira was flat out ridiculous.  There’s a Metropolitan Opera DVD version where the women’s second arias are treated as about their men! We’ve had centuries of eager male egos producing the opera they wanted instead of the opera as it is.  I’ve read many comments that the point of Don Giovanni is how boring the world is without him.  Sound familiar?

Things get even more complicated with the next opera, Cosi Fan Tutte.  The core of the story is a joke, possibly from an event that really happened.  Two men swear to an older cynic that their girlfriends will be loyal forever, and he bets them he can break them down.   He sends the men off to an imaginary war and then has them return disguised to woo each other’s girlfriend.  At the end the women succumb, the men unmask, and the cynic proclaims his triumph.   It’s a very dark joke, since the 18th century consequences for the women would be disastrous and the manipulated wooing of the women involves increasingly horrifying violations of ethics and trust.  Unsurprisingly the story is difficult to end, and you can find half a dozen variations of the ending on Amazon. 

However for Mozart’s intent one again only needs to follow the music. In that there is no question. The women are much more carefully drawn and sympathetic than the men—who are only fitfully in the spotlight.  With the elaborate violations of trust the opera turns the joke upside down—the primary betrayal is of the women by the men.  Such stories are not unique—there’s a lengthy Cosi Fan Tutte story in Don Quixote for example with even more dire consequences. What is unusual here, though, is presenting the story from the women’s point of view. In a manner analogous to what happens in Don Giovanni, Mozart made his opera out of the consequences to the women.

Nonetheless many productions buy the joke.  A recent Boston Lyric Opera production, for example, was most interested in which possible lovers the girlfriends would choose! By contrast the most coherent production I’ve even seen was done by the New England Conservatory a few years ago.  The action took place on a resort set named for the cynic: “Hotel Don Alfonso”.  The women did what no one in the eighteenth century could even imagine—get up and leave Hotel Don Alfonzo.

Finally there is Mozart’s last opera “The Magic Flute”.  The plot here is complicated and functions as a kind of initiation story for a society modeled on the 18th century Masonic movement.   Mozart was a Mason and believed in its goal of a rationally-ordered enlightenment society.  However, there were no women Masons, so the Masonic movement itself doesn’t fit with what we’ve been talking about.

However the opera both is and isn’t Masonic.  There are plenty of statements of Enlightenment goals.  And the libretto has quite a lot of organizational mumbo-jumbo, including comments from speakers about “being a man” and not listening to “jabbering women.”  But when you follow the music, the mumbo-jumbo gets parodied, and by far the strongest character is a woman (Pamina).  The initial male lead is almost forgotten in the second act and has to be guided through his trials by her. We’re even told at the end that she should be among the ruling elite. It’s hard to find much else in the 18th century to match that.  Mozart couldn’t change the Masons but he did change his opera.

It seems that the Masons weren’t too happy about that.  There is a trio late in the second act (where Sarastro drags Tamino away from Pamina and off to war) which makes no sense in its current context.  The only place where it does make sense is near the beginning of the act, where it sets up the rest of the act as Pamina’s story.  Many current productions actually do the opera that way.  It’s clear something happened, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Mozart’s plan for the female lead went beyond what the Masons could take, so they toned it down at the last minute.

What does all of this come down to?  Mozart was certainly not producing feminist propaganda, but he was very systematic about respecting the feminine roles in his operas.  And it is fundamentally wrong not to recognize that consistent thread.  Mozart went to great pains to make you respect his women and understand their problems.

We can only speculate why.  Mozart had lived his life from childhood on the wrong side of the ruling nobility’s class divide, which may or may not have to do with sensitivity to the position of women.  Further the opera world was different—women were of prime importance, and he was satisfying the sopranos who were his stars.  Finally we know that Mozart was influenced by the rediscovery of Shakespeare (in translation) during his time in Vienna, and that was certainly art that respected its characters. 

Perhaps none of that is relevant.  But the thread of concern for women’s issues is undeniable and should be recognized in any conscientious theatrical performance.