RIP USA

Clarence and Ginni Thomas are running the country now.

This was a genuine coup engineered by the Koch organization–creator and manager of the Federalist Society, the source for all our conservative Supreme Court justices. Read Dark Money. Check Wikipedia for recent Federalist manager Leonard Leo. This takeover was always the target.

There are a few others to call out for their contributions. Anthony Kennedy who knowingly capitulated to exactly this. Mitch McConnell of course. And Ruth Bader Ginsburg who couldn’t put aside her ego for the good of the country when Obama asked.

Finally and most fundamentally the founding fathers who made a disastrous mistake: the undemocratic organization charged with enforcing the Constitution has the unchallengeable power to make of the Constitution anything that it wants. That’s what this rogue Court is doing.

As Thomas indicated, they’re just getting started. The Koch project is to return the US to a nineteenth century level of government subservience to business: minimal taxes on corporations and rich people, no services, no personal rights, no regulation, no unions, no checks on business behavior - paradise. If we haven’t lost Medicare and Social Security yet it’s because that’s inconvenient for the next election. After a few more years of voting restritions they won’t have to care. We’ll have a country where the welfare of the population is simply out of the equation.

Unless Biden can do something about the Court–hardly a likely prospect–the United States of America as we knew it is no more.

The One Million Covid Victims Have a Message

At least half of these deaths were due to deliberate misinformation from political interests calling the whole pandemic a left-wing plot.  For month after month the most popular story in the Wall Street Journal was the latest reason why there was really nothing going on:  it was just like normal flu; it was worst in New York because it was only in disgusting cities full of disgusting people.

Everyone in the country suffered, including very many who bought into the party line because they thought the propagandists were on their side.  Since vaccines were coming, deaths delayed could be deaths avoided. What’s worse, almost of half the people who died were unvaccinated when they could have been, convinced by the arguments of people like the Fox hosts-who were actually vaccinated for themselves.

This Covid story is unfortunately typical of what’s happening in this country.  The “populists” are the Kochs and the Mercers and the Thiels—people with the money to fill newspapers with issues they don’t care about (abortion, guns) so they can ride them all the way to the bank.  The only major piece of legislation passed in the Trump years was the monumental tax cut for the rich.  As with Covid, the supporters drawn in with identity issues are the ones who will suffer—in jobs, healthcare, education, climate, you name it.

Taking this one step further, it is worth noting that the damage with Covid was not from action but from inaction.  Most of the endless discussions of our fractured political system are missing the point.  The country is ungovernable because they want it that way.  If government can’t act, the powers that be are running things.  As Steve Bannon put it, all we need to do is create chaos. 

This story isn’t complicated, just lost in the cacophony of bought media.

The Hijacking of Race

The Democratic Party owes black people a debt of gratitude for their organized commitment in the last election.   Even if that weren’t true, the United States owes black people what it has never delivered—real, functional equality of opportunity.  It’s worth restating what never made it into any textbook I ever had—slavery in this country didn’t end in 1863.  With Black Laws and then Jim Crow, the substance of slavery in this country persisted well into the twentieth century.  It’s no surprise that we live with a pervasive legacy of slavery.

What is owed here is progress—on everything that makes for personal and family prosperity and life satisfaction.  A recent NY Times piece does a good job of getting at what that means. However it’s worth recognizing that this objective gets hijacked every day in favor of other more exciting agendas, as examples:

– Anticapitalism.  This is a kind of knee-jerk on the left that gets applied to all issues (climate change is another one).  Get rid of capitalism, let me and my morally-certified friends run everything, and racism will vanish in an instant.  Otherwise there’s not a chance. Somehow the dictatorship of the proletariat (like trickle-down economics) survives in the face of all evidence.

– Violence.  It’s amazing how attractive violence is for people who spend their lives far from it.  That’s not just for the classic case of British Nazi intellectuals prior to World War II.  Two very good books The Good Lord Bird and The Underground Railway end with ringing endorsements of violence as a necessary way to get things done.  In context that’s not really a call to action, but it indicates a willingness to forgive violence as a tactic—a significant mistake supported only by rewriting history. 

There’s not going to be a revolution on the left in this country, so we’ve got to work with the flawed political process we’ve got.  Violence hardens opposition—end of story.  If you want to get things done, there’s no greater mistake than believing you have powers you don’t have.

– Cultural superiority.  This has many manifestations.  The good guys are immune from racism, create better artistic productions, are more moral and humane to each other, etc.

If you get past all of that, objectives here are not so different from what we owe to everyone else—a fair chance to succeed and a viable safety net.  What it takes to get there must be adapted to the history of anti-black racism, but adaptation is the rule for every other group also.  Our task as a society is to get the job done for everyone.

It is hijacking the race issue to

– Use it as a justification for anti-democratic behavior.

– Use it as a reason to justify any departure from the rule of law.  We are not doing anyone a favor by asking for an understanding of mob violence.

– Engage in ridiculous exercises of cultural superiority. That includes, in particular, anti-racism competitions.  I’d even say everybody is racist; the important question is who is doing damage and how to stop it. Anti-racism crusades may feel good, but they are not progress. And if they lose elections they are nothing more than destructive vanity.

Even if you think this is an oversimplification, you have to admit that the objectives here–a fair chance to succeed and a viable safety net–are worth pursuing.  You’d think they would be universally popular.  After all, as many have pointed out, essentially any social program has more white than black beneficiaries.  So why aren’t they universally popular?  The reason goes all the way back to What’s The Matter with Kansas.  Republicans have been convincing people for decades that all those measures are not for them.  It’s just giving the country away to the shiftless blacks.  People in Hillbilly Elegy and Strangers in their own Land are astonished that any of their own would waste time applying for such benefits.

Why are Republicans so successful?  BECAUSE WE KEEP HELPING THEM.  With all the discussion of white racists who just have to get used to giving up the advantages of white privilege (and deservedly take the hit), what else would you expect them to believe?  We’re not spending our time saying we’re committed to what it takes to achieve equality of opportunity for everyone—with all the benefits that entails.  Too often we’re playing the Republicans’ game.

You don’t have to agree with everything here, but one thing is indubitably true.  Fighting racism is about results, not morality contests.  It is about jobs, safety, and education for your kids.  It is a pragmatic issue.  Anything that doesn’t produce results is hijacking, regardless of how good it feels.

Stop Playing the Republicans’ Games

As Democrats, our message has to be that we are in business to make life better for everyone—white, black, or anything else.  Life for most people in the US is poorer, more stressful, and more uncertain than in any other developed country.  That’s a fixable problem, and we’re trying to do it.  It’s not easy to fight the powers that be—so it’s not pretty as a process—but we’re up for the fight.  Climate fits in that picture as well.  Racism has its particular challenges. But we are moving everyone up.

That message is not compatible with the current chest-beating (mostly self-appointed) about how morally superior we are to the moronic white racists.   “Those people just have to get used to giving up the advantages they’ve enjoyed by being white, so they ought to suffer.”  Not a great way to get elected and not what we stand for.  It’s a false premise that we have to trade one group off against another.

That false premise is not just counterproductive as a message, it also leads to bad policy.  It is not okay to assume that it’s fine to make the other guy suffer.  In education, it is not okay to ignore kids who are successful, because they’re not the ones that count.  (I can tell you about mixed classes in middle school math.) With education, as in everything else, we are in it to make things better for everyone.  Fighting over insufficiently-provided resources—college slots or AP classes—is not the answer. Watering down education for the supposed benefit of the disadvantaged benefits no one.  And both are distractions from the many other items (e.g. family economic stability) that are needed if we really want equality of opportunity.  The objective is excellence for all.

We’re still living down “defund the police”—with columnists talking about how it is perfectly okay for mobs to trash the businesses of random people.  This education stuff is if anything worse, because it turns racial progress into a threat.  That may make some people happy, but it’s not productive, and it isn’t even to the advantage of the people it purports to serve.

As to what we ought to be talking about, it seems that vaccination is a marvelous metaphor for everything the Republican Party stands for.   Vaccinated people don’t get sick and die; unvaccinated people do.  The people cheering on the unvaccinated are largely vaccinated themselves (e.g. Murdoch and Fox people).  They’re sacrificing their supporters to the task of keeping themselves in power.  So they can continue to take their money–not just in taxes but in medical expenses, education expenses, and job insecurity.

There are lots of false bogeymen here.  “We can’t have those benefits without tanking the economy.”  “Just look at the inflation we’re already getting from the Democrats’ spending.”  Virtually all the benefits of Trump tax cuts went to the ultra-rich.  Virtually all of the corporate benefits went to stock buybacks instead of new investment.  Virtually all of the inflation is from shortages created by continuing Covid supply issues. Just as the Obama-era Republicans kept the country poor by blocking all stimulus, the current Republicans are deliberately keeping the country poor by blocking the national recovery from Covid.

One thing that is certainly true is that our strength as a nation, both economic and military, is built on people.  That means developing the capabilities of our population, spending on education and research, and getting the best and brightest from everywhere to come here.  Furthermore we need to develop the infrastructure (e.g. for climate change, 5G) that the economy will need for the future.  The Republican Party has proved it is ready to sacrifice all of that to profits returned to wealthy investors—and deliberately-incited divisiveness.

We need to be a nation united by policies that serve everyone.  Our history was written by contributions from all levels of society, including many categories people written off both here and abroad.  The divisions we have are more sown than real, so the most important message is that we are in this for all.  That’s the only way forward.

The Supreme Court has tipped the balance: the filibuster must end now

Our starting point, however obvious, has to be stated unequivocally: the Constitution of the United States only exists insofar as it is supported by the Supreme Court. That’s just fact. Based on the form and content of the Supreme Court’s Texas decision, the Constitution no longer exists.

We’ve seen the Court stretching things before. The Citizens United decision had nothing to do with the intentions of the founding fathers. The pretext there was weak enough that you wondered if anyone really believed it. Some of Kavanaugh’s recent decisions were worse. However the Texas decision is a sea change. They no longer find it necessary even to come up with pretexts. There was no arguing of the case, and the statement of the majority said little more than that they had the power to do it so they did. Their preferred mode of operation now seems to be “shadow-docket” decisions, where nothing gets said at all.

Despite all that is written about checks and balances in government, sovereignty is indivisible. Someone always has the last word, and in the US system that someone is the Supreme Court. It is the least democratic of institutions and the only one with absolute power. There is no constraint on the scope of it’s decisions or on the rationale to be used in reaching them. And no mechanism to appeal the results.

This is not just about women’s health, serious as that may be. It’s easy to take over the country through the Court, and this Court has shown itself ready for the job. Voting restrictions of any sort will stand unless the Court strikes them down. Increases and decreases in government power are matters of what is or isn’t allowed. If the Court outlaws regulation of business (a current Republican project) then that’s that. Same for healthcare. The free press (already a problem) is what they choose to make of it.

Our current radically-unrepresentative Court (you can’t even call them conservatives) has now served notice that it is ready to act as it sees fit, without constraint of prior decisions or even the need to come up with arguments. That’s the tipping point. Just as with the last election, democracy itself is at stake. Because of the Court’s power, nothing short of reforming it will work.

So we have to enlarge the Court. To do that we need to end the filibuster. The Supreme Court has set down a challenge to democracy, so the time to act is now.

How We Won the Cold War

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“File:Map-Flag of the Soviet Union.svg” by NuclearVacuum is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

We hear every day how we need to get tough for our new cold war with China.  The unstated subtext is that threats and bluster are the “getting tough” that’s going to win. In fact we know exactly what won the last Cold War.  It’s worth paying attention to what that was.

The dynamism of our economy won the last cold war.   Our technological base reinvented itself many times over, and the top down economy of the USSR just couldn’t match it.  There were many individual factors behind the collapse—low growth, corrupt state enterprises, spending on defense, oil price collapse, Chernobyl.  But what it all came down to is that the Soviet economy collapsed because it just couldn’t find the resources to keep up.

Many factors made the difference—the historical strengths of the United States:

– A free market for new technologies.  A venture capital industry supported by anti-trust enforcement to protect new companies from powerful old ones.

– The US as world’s best destination for entrepreneurs from everywhere to realize their dreams.

– Openness to ideas from everywhere and active participation in international organizations of all kinds.

– Government support for pure research–to be on the forefront as new developments translated to opportunities.

– Expanding equality of opportunity, so ideas can come from everywhere.

The USSR had a well-trained population of elite engineers and scientists, but ultimately they couldn’t compete with the ability of the US model to reinvent itself and grow.

What can we say about the current situation with China?  There are three points:

  1. The rise of China actually followed the US model.

One part of this is familiar—China invested in its people:  education, infrastructure, health care, etc.  The regime tolerated no disagreements, but it put money (as we used to) into the environment necessary for success.

However the bigger part is less-discussed—what kicked off the Chinese miracle was an accidental surge of free enterprise.  As a weakening of collective economic control, Chinese municipalities were freed to carry out their own businesses once obligations to the state had been met.  That minor bit of freedom took over the economy.  Independent municipal businesses became dominant to the point that they dwarfed the hugely-corrupt state-run enterprises.  Municipal businesses grew into the independent private sector.

  1. Under Xi, China is abandoning that approach in favor of a return to central planning and control.

Xi is a princeling—a child of former revolutionaries brought up to believe he was born to rule.  All of his recent actions have been directed at crushing independent forces in the Chinese economy.  Appointments have been based on loyalty above all.

China is back to the old Soviet and Chinese world of massive state enterprises and a dictated economy.   That won’t change the immediate future, but we have no reason to despair of our ability to compete.

  1. Under Trump we are similarly abandoning our strengths.

Trump, like Xi, is an autocrat who view himself as the all-encompassing genius who needs to run everything.  He picks winners and losers with tariffs.  He awards exceptions to supporters.  He ignores real problems (such as Covid) that he doesn’t want to deal with.  Job appointments are based on loyalty over competence.  Every one of the listed US strengths is at risk:

– New enterprises are sacrificed to the existing powers that be.

– Xenophobia and nativism are pushing entrepreneurs elsewhere.

– Global participation is discouraged.

– Science is discredited and only mainstream technologies (e.g. AI) or Trump whims are funded. Climate change can’t even be mentioned.

– A political strategy of divisiveness means we’re fighting internally rather than drawing on everyone for progress.

 

We didn’t beat the Russians by mimicking their authoritarian control and top-down economy.  We won because they couldn’t compete with our ability to reinvent ourselves over and over again.  We have that opportunity today, but we’re losing it to the false god of dictatorship.

Democracy is not a nicety but the core of our success.

Dictatorships lose.  All-powerful leaders make disastrous mistakes that cannot be remedied.  They can ignore the well-being of the population.  They create massive corruption that cannot be contained.  All these tendencies are visible today (Covid alone shows several), and the effect is—as always—accelerating.

We still like to talk about the power of democracy and free markets, but both are slipping away.  Voter suppression is an openly-discussed goal.  Anti-trust enforcement has effectively ceased to exist.  The power of corporate lobbyists has starved the public sector (including infrastructure of all kinds) and defended the economic status quo against all comers.

Our problems today are not weaknesses of democracy but an indication of how far we’ve strayed from it.  There’s no reason to despair for our competition with China—or for the country generally.  It’s just a sign we have to get back to doing what we’ve always done best.

The Public be Damned

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“Face Mask” by shibuya246 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

The logic behind medical face masks was never obscure.  When you sneeze or cough, droplets with virus are largely contained rather than spread.  That logic is clear and confirmed by statistics.

Who knows what Trump thinks, but the Republican Party certainly includes people capable of understanding that sentence.  Such people had a choice.  They knew they could save the country from a serious and completely unnecessary health risk, but they chose the political opportunities of divisiveness instead.

They made that choice.  Face masks had nothing to do with how quickly we were reopening the economy.   Many thousands will die for it.

This is hardly the first case of “public be damned” behavior.  But it is a very pure one.

The Crisis of our State of the Union

Trump’s State of the Union deserves a full response.

It was bad enough to sit through the deceptions and lies in the description of the national economy—where very small actual gains (smallest annual reduction in unemployment in any three-year period since the 2008 crash; worst real wage growth at low unemployment in at least 40 years) were bought at enormously high cost (1.4T tax cut that went directly to Wall Street through artificial earnings and stock buybacks; nothing for infrastructure, education, opioid epidemic, etc.).

unemployment_and_wages

However, all of that is just the beginning.  Many commentators have made that point (although many talking-head economists have done the country a disservice by exaggerating the benefits and ignoring the costs).

The real issue is that you would never guess that we live in crucial times for this country and the world.  You might expect that now I’m going to talk about climate change.   But even that is only a piece of it.  Only in the “I don’t have to care” world of today’s Republican Party is the State of the Union grounds for applause.

We are presiding over the demise of America’s promise in irresponsibility, incompetence, and simple vanity.  Let’s go down a list.

  1. Climate change

On climate change there can be no question of the urgency and magnitude of the challenge.  Science has given us a carbon budget we have to meet. The administration denies all of it and works systematically to undermine world progress.  As we’ve noted before, if we act today we have the elements of victory—but we also have ample evidence it’s a near thing.

Inaction on this subject is a grave risk to ourselves, our children, and the rest of humanity.

  1. World economic order

The elephant hiding in plain sight is the growth of the Chinese economy.  We are in the process of being supplanted as the world’s largest economy, and the room for growth there is enormous—China is already our equal by some measures, but their per-capita income still ranks only as 108th!  The world is preparing a new international order, and we’re in danger of missing the boat.

We have a chance to define notions of trade that open markets everywhere and embrace standards for wages and working conditions, environmental concerns (including climate change), and human rights.  In some sense this is a necessary complement to what’s needed for climate change.  However we are losing leverage for that enterprise every day.

We’ve taken the position (without exaggeration) that God has chosen us to rule, so we should abolish all international norms that might constrain our behavior.  With the growth of China that’s a losing game.  Even today we were unable to dictate to China in our trade war, and it’s China—not us—that’s the biggest foreign market for European cars.  We’re not going to be calling the shots forever, and without rules it’s their game.  In this Trump is not defending the US interest against the Chinese, he’s defending his personal dictatorial power against the interest of the country.  We have a very limited window to take back the promise.

  1. Technology

There will always be changes in technology, but the pace of change has reached the point where we have to keep up or lose.  This affects all aspects of our success as a country:  our national income, the jobs of our workers, the strength of our military.

Instead of recognizing that reality we’ve got our head in the sand.  Some examples:

– We’ve done everything possible to discredit scientists and science generally, and for climate change and environment protection in particular.

– We’ve disbanded scientific advisory councils in government.

– We’ve had multiple State of the Union addresses where the only mention of education was vocational.

– We’ve killed net neutrality, thereby sacrificing new enterprises to the interests of the phone companies.

– On 5G and AI the government has come late to the party, without real plans.  For 5G in particular we’re actually asking our allies just to wait until we’ve figured out some alternative to Huawei.  This is worse than a failure of planning—5G applications are what’s most important, and waiting is punting that stage of technology back to the Chinese.

– More generally there’s simply no understanding of the importance of government in funding exploratory research—for technologies before the stage where private companies can run with them.  The tax cuts included a targeted punishment for major research universities.

– Finally the current rampant xenophobia flies in the face of the past and current contributions of foreigners to our technological strength.  We must continue to be the destination of choice for entrepreneurs looking to realize their visions.

We are simply ignoring the technological challenges and what has made us successful.  God only helps those who help themselves.

  1. Nuclear proliferation

This may seem a more limited issue, but that’s only because it hasn’t hit yet.  There are still only a limited number of players, largely under control.  But we’re doing everything possible to change that.

We’ve not only presented the world with the contrast in our treatments of North Korea and Iran, we’ve argued specifically for nations to do what it takes for their own defense.  We’ve eschewed the sort of international cooperation necessary to prevent new entrants.  And we’ve given Saudi Arabia nuclear material and technology without asking any questions at all.

The only reason we were less worried about this in the past was that world leaders had all recognized the nature of the threat.   We’re no longer keeping our eyes on the ball.  Nuclear technology gets ever easier.  As more entrants join the nuclear club, it gets harder to control their behavior and prevent the further sale of nuclear technology to third-parties of whatever ilk.  The North Koreans have done it before.

The clock is ticking.

  1. National ideals

It’s shocking how shallow the support for democracy has turned out to be.  In Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here” many people had to die for the dictators to take over.  The reality was much easier.

Democracy is not a luxury.  It is key to what made this country what it is.  We were never perfect, but we were much more a country “of the people, by the people, for the people” than had ever existed before.

We’re losing all of that right down the line:

– We’ve reversed our progress in expanding suffrage, and are now looking for reasons to block people from voting.  The Citizens United ruling put rich people and corporations in control of elections.  Deliberate voter suppression by state governments is stated Republican policy.

– Support for public education is declining, and funding is still below 2008 levels.

– Upward mobility is now below that of most other developed countries.

– The religious right is in charge of what happens to women’s bodies.

– We’ve lost the social cohesion needed for big national efforts.  The President no longer even pretends to represent the nation—he’s a warlord who delivers spoils for his supporters.

There are plenty of historical examples of how hard it is to reclaim democracy once it’s gone.  If we’re going to have the strength of a country by and for the people, things had better change fast.

 

We live in a crucial time.  On one hand we could even see massive destruction of humanity; on the other we could see an unprecedented level of international cooperation as a precursor to a very prosperous and peaceful world.

One thing we can’t do is ignore the reality of our time.  We can’t afford the “I don’t have to care” puffery of this criminally fictitious State of the Union.