Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

28 November 2013

Thanksgiving Message 2013

[For my recent essays on filibusters and gridlock, which are among my most popular, click here.]

Is this the worst of times? Or is it the best of times?

If you’re looking for trouble, you can find it. Our economy is still struggling. The healthcare.gov website is not running very well. The Affordable Care Act is suffering practical problems and delays. Cooperation in Washington is running about as well as healthcare.gov.

The Iranians are just as tough and wily bargainers as they’ve always been. “Bibi” Netanyahu is rattling the saber as hard as he can. Syria is in flames, and Iraq is getting there. China is trying to declare the disputed Daioyu/Senkaku Islands part of its territory. And global warming is accelerating, without much progress in Warsaw. Every informed person has a sneaking suspicion that hard storms like Sandy and Haiyan are just the beginning.

But look a little deeper, and you can find some things to give thanks for. Big things.

For what might be the first time in human history, there is not a single major-power leader who wants war. Vladimir Putin just made a last-minute deal to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons to avoid a wider war.

Xi Jinping’s feint toward the disputed Islands is undoubtedly meant to shore up his domestic political base and wise up his own warmongers. Our overflight will help him realize his consistent and primary goal: stability and prosperity for his people. The man who might have become China’s warmonger—Bo Xilai—is safely in jail. And Xi will be only too happy to deal with his biggest trading partner and national investment, rather than seeming to back down from a conflict with erstwhile invader Japan. No leader as smart as he is going to risk war for uninhabited islands, when only peace can let their oil and gas come out.

Our own needless wars are winding down. We are out of Iraq. We will soon be out of Afghanistan, perhaps with a residual training force to secure the modest but important gains we have made for Afghans. Our President is still on track to wind down our senseless Little Cold War with Iran, which has lasted longer than the big one with the Soviets, who are now history.

There are still a few little wars running all over the globe, not the least in Syria and the Congo. But no major power is directly involved. France may become involved only to put out some fires in Africa.

So the current pax atomica among major powers has held for over 78 years now. It promises global economic and social progress on an unprecedented scale. Just six months ago, The Economist reported an extraordinary thing. In the last twenty years, the global economy has raised one billion people out of extreme poverty. And it could do almost as well again in the next twenty years, at least if our species doesn’t waste our energy and resources fighting each other.

Along with the Brits, we Yanks can take much credit for this state of affairs. Our President is contributing mightily, taking the path of peace. Who better to wage peace than the strongest nation on Earth, which devotes almost as much money to defense as the rest of the world combined?

As for our domestic troubles, they, too, may be ending soon. Which do you think is harder: making a political deal for health-insurance reform, or fixing a website? Solving the former problem took a century. Think a technical fix will take that long? People are always harder than tech—especially known technology like websites.

Our famous national gridlock, too, seems about to end. The Senate just killed filibusters for executive and lower judicial appointments. Can filibusters for legislation and Supreme-Court nominees be far behind?

Winston Churchill once described us Yanks as always doing the right thing, after exhausting all the alternatives. We tried needless war under Dubya, and now we’re trying peace. The rest of the world seems ready for it. The Tea Party lies unmasked as a Southern invention, like the filibuster itself, designed to foist a largely alien regional culture on the rest of us Yanks. So we’re getting wise and beginning to restore democracy.

Even energy is going our way. We’re more independent in oil than we’ve been since 1995. We’re beginning to recognize that solar photovoltaic and wind energy are the cheapest sources of energy we know. Even Texas is investing in them.

The Saudis, like the Israelis, don’t like our current tack. They think we’re getting too independent and favoring Iran. But we’re not; we’re just favoring our own interest in a rational, stable, peaceful world. And if both the Saudis and the Israelis disagree with us, mustn’t we be right?

If you look backwards, you can feel down because of where we’ve been. But the darkest hour is just before dawn.

Now dawn is breaking. The immediate forecast spells peace with furious diplomacy abroad, renewed majority rule at home, and eventual success of the President’s historic health-insurance reform, after a year or so of much overhyped trial and error. Isn’t that how our species always proceeds: trial and error, two steps forward and one back?

A real expert (and the first woman) is about to take the reins at the Fed. She will receive them from the capable hands of Ben Bernanke, who helped save us from what could have been a second Great Depression when Congress wouldn’t. Now Morningstar’s experts worry about deflation, not inflation. [subscription required].

So as you take refuge from the early winter storm and enjoy your turkey, look on the bright side. Our common human race and our own country are showing distinct signs of growing up.

And what better day to celebrate growing up than Thanksgiving! It recalls no religion, no military triumph, and no disaster, just a simple feast of trust and friendship between native peoples and hard-pressed refugees in the New World. That’s why it’s my favorite holiday.

That first feast brought together people of vastly different histories and cultures. Today it can be a model for us and the world, and for our own country’s differing cultures. If we can just follow it, grasp the promises that history now offers, and avoid the pitfalls, we can make our little blue-green globe a paradise that only global cooperation can forge. The prospects for doing so are brighter now than ever in human history.

Let’s all give thanks for that.


23 November 2013

The Trouble with Filibusters

[For more on the South’s alien culture, which it has used filibusters to serve, click here.]

Is gridlock good for us?
Republics and democracies
Majority rule
How advising became a minority veto
Conclusion: the South will rise again, over our prone bodies, but only if we let it
Coda: A Truly Alien Culture


David Brooks is a conservative pundit for the New York Times and PBS. He’s one of the few of his ilk to whom I can listen without hearing fingernails scraping on a blackboard. He’s not dogmatic. He’s not belligerent. He doesn’t even sound authoritarian. He has an attractive “aw shucks” manner similar to Warren Buffet’s, although I doubt he’s as public spirited or as rich. At least I haven’t heard of him donating $30 billion to charity.

On last night’s PBS News Hour, in his usual end-of-week political roundup, Brooks did something extraordinary. He foretold our future. He explained why today’s brand of so-called “conservatism” either will destroy this country or will be beaten decisively in the next few years.

Brooks did this inadvertently. He was, in his usual way, just being affable, trying to explain his moderately conservative beliefs. In this case, the belief in question was that we should expect—and even celebrate—inertia and stasis in government.

The context of his paean to gridlock was a discussion of this week’s seminal event: eliminating filibusters of the President’s (and future presidents’) executive and lower judicial appointments (those below the Supreme Court). Brooks lamented this change as making our Senate less “special” and portending greater partisanship.

To some extent, his co-pundit Mark Shields, who is supposed to be a progressive, agreed with Brooks on these points. It was an extraordinary performance by both men, a seeming ode to stasis for stasis’ sake. This essay analyzes their mutual reverence for procedures that keep government from working.

Is gridlock good for us?

We should never expect too much of politics, Brooks opined. When we do, we set ourselves up for failure and disappointment.

Brooks superimposed this mournful view of our nation and human nature on the day’s retrospectives of JFK. He seemed to say that we were sad after JFK’s untimely demise because we expected him to accomplish so much more. Most of us would say we were sad because JFK’s murder deprived us of one of our most inspiring leaders. (Shields did capture this spirit in a ringing and accurate homage to JFK.)

And why, according to Brooks, can’t government do much? Because our Founders designed it that way.

Our Founders, Brooks implied, designed our Senate for gridlock, not just slow deliberation. Their goal was to make political change really hard, so that policy would be consistent and “stable” from eon to eon. In Brooks view, it should take decades or centuries to get anything real done in politics, like making our freed slaves equal citizens—a task almost exactly one and a half centuries old and still ongoing.

That’s the way Brooks and most conservatives like things: stable, unchanging and ever the same. But that’s not what life, let alone evolution, demands. Maybe that’s why so many so-called “conservatives” reject Darwin. They don’t want us to evolve, either socially or biologically. They want things to stay the same, forever if possible. They reject Darwin’s monumental discovery that survival, let alone thriving, demands change, in an ever-changing and highly competitive world.

Let’s leave aside for a moment the great leaps in economic and social progress that our government—yes, our government!—has made over our nation’s short history. They include: the Louisiana Purchase (doubling the size of our nation), Lewis and Clark’s exploration of our continent, opening the West with staked-claim farms, freeing the slaves, subsidizing the railroads with land grants, authorizing and subsidizing universal education, funding land-grant colleges, pulling us out of the Great Depression, inventing nuclear weapons (a military government project from start to finish), passing new civil rights laws, trying to eliminate racism as a governmental principle, funding and managing the conquest of smallpox, polio and AIDS, taking us to the Moon, and developing the Internet (a DARPA project later released for commercial use). And that’s just a partial list.

Apparently Brooks would not have funded or authorized any of these worthy projects. In his world of laissez faire, where the real rulers are corporate bosses and their hidden wealth, we would be just another Latin American nation. Likely we would have lost the Great War and would be speaking either German or Japanese. Brooks (who I believe is Jewish) might be dead, along with his family and mine, victims of a Holocaust that never ended.

But never mind. Inertia is so comfortable for those who can’t stand change. The dinosaurs were like that, too. We see their skeletons in our museums.

Republics and democracies

Let’s leave aside these historical inconveniences of Brooks’ government-as-bumbler philosophy. In coming to his counterfactual conclusions, Brooks told a real whopper. “[W]e’re a republic,” he said, “and not a democracy . . . .” That’s a direct quote.

Maybe Brooks was tired. Who wouldn’t be, after listening all day to people praising our most recent presidential martyr, knowing that that martyr’s persona and call to sacrifice contradicted Brook’s own political philosophy? Who wouldn’t feel a bit squeamish, after feeling the glow of JFK’s inspiration and intelligence, still shining half a century later, and watching Ronnie’s memory diminish in comparison like an incredible shrinking doll?

Even high-school civics students know that nothing in our Republic or our Constitution contradicts democracy. What our Founders gave us they called a “Republic” to distinguish it from a direct democracy: one in which the people themselves, in masses assembled, vote on all important issues.

Ancient Greece had something like that, and our Founders knew all about it. The Republic our Founders gave us is different. It’s representative democracy, as distinguished from ancient Greece’s direct one. But it was (and is) still supposed to be a democracy, in which the people’s chosen representatives govern them and are accountable to them.

Our Founders had ambitions just like JFK’s. They knew our nation would grow strong and multiply. Eventually, they knew, it would get far too big for town-hall meetings. And in their own time—over two centuries before the Internet and even radio—they knew that we, the people, would have to debate and vote through representatives, if only because we would be too many to do otherwise.

Our Founders hoped our representatives would be smarter, better educated and more skilled in debate and useful compromise than the average person. But they never doubted, even for an instant, the most basic principle of democracy: majority rule.

Majority rule

A funny thing, majority rule. It’s so natural that no one invented it. It just evolved, like us.

In the fields of Runnymede, King John looked at the assembled knights and knaves. The Barons had a majority. They outnumbered him. So he could fight the good fight, probably lose (maybe his own life), and shed a whole lot of blood. Or he could make a deal.

King John dealt, and the result was Magna Carta. So the first post-ancient democracy began.

That was about 800 years ago. Ever since, the principle of democracy in Anglo-American societies has been the same. Majority rule applied, whether in the House of Commons or the House of Lords, or in the boardrooms that directed the private companies that discovered the “New World.”

And let’s not forget ancient Greece and Rome. They all acted by simple majorities, too. They go back at least three millennia. (Sometimes social evolution has to re-discover itself. Two steps forward, one step back.)

So, no, David. Democracy and a Republic are not incompatible. Our Republic is a democracy, just as were ancient Greece, ancient Rome (for a time), and England for eight centuries, and as are Australia, Canada, India and New Zealand today (to list only the English-speaking ones). We are “exceptional” only because our democracy no longer works.

How advising became a minority veto

Brooks also bewailed the passing of what is “special” about our Senate. The context was this week’s Senate rules change, allowing Harry Reid and the Democrats to let our President appoint subordinate members of his own team and occasionally a federal judge. (Nearly six years into Obama’s presidency, an unprecedentedly large number of Executive positions still remains unfilled. I guess that fact saves money and furthers the GOP dream of drowning government in a bathtub. The fewer heads to drown, the quicker the job.)

Both executive and judicial appointments are things that our Constitution explicitly authorizes. Brooks thinks that lowering the necessary Senate majority from 60 to 51 (the second similar decrease in modern times) forfeits something “special” about the Senate that our Founders bequeathed us.

That thought, too, assumes a couple of whoppers. Our Founders didn’t bequeath us filibusters and Senate holds at all. Read our Constitution from cover to cover, and you will find no reference to them. None at all.

What is in the Constitution is the Senate’s power to “advise and consent” to executive and judicial appointments and to ratify treaties. It’s hard to read those soft words as meaning minority veto power.

In 1791, when our Constitution was ratified, people (even politicians) said what they meant. “Spin” was something children’s tops did, not pols. If our Founders had meant to give the Senate carte blanche to “return” or “disapprove” any presidential appointment, they would have said so, just as they did in authorizing presidential vetoes (although without using that modern term). If they had intended a minority of the Senate to have that privilege, they would have been especially clear.

Filibusters did begin not too long after our Constitution was ratified. But what was their purpose? Was it to give a Senate minority veto power over legislation and the president’s executive and judicial appointments? Was it to give any individual senator veto power, merely by threatening a filibuster, as Senate “holds” do today?

No and no. The filibuster’s original purpose was only delay, not a senatorial veto, let alone a minority veto.

Back in 1791, it took about two weeks to travel the length of our country on horseback, or to send a letter across it by similar means. There was no Internet. There was no radio or TV. There were no automobiles. There wasn’t even a railroad. Stage coaches’ wheels broke, and they tended to get bogged down in mud, especially in winter. So horseback was the fastest mode of transport and communication.

The filibuster’s original purpose to give senators from outlying states a chance to assemble and debate important issues. Its aim was just to let them communicate, deliberate, assemble, and debate, in time to have some impact. It was not to give a minority a veto, let alone over every bit of routine legislation needed to keep the government running.

Some such delaying tactic was practically necessary at the time, for reasons of simple fairness. Without it, states closer to the seat of government (which was then Philadelphia) would have had an advantage. Senators from outlying states would have to stay in the capital and lose contact with their states and voters. Or they would have to let their senatorial opponents assemble a quorum in their absence and vote without their presence, wisdom, debate or objection.

It is self-evident that these reasons do not apply today, when any senator can send an e-mail across the world in seconds or travel personally from the farthest state to Washington, D.C. in a single day. Modern technologies of communication and travel have extinguished filibusters’ raison d’être. Yet like Dracula and vampires, they live on.

The Senate’s “advise and consent” function was supposed to give our presidents the benefit of whatever relevant wisdom and experience senators might have. It was designed for collegiality and consultation. Roadblocks were to be as rare as impeachments. They were intended for once-in-a-century disputes.

Not only was the “advise and consent” power never supposed to provide routine “vetoes” over executive policy. It was never dreamed to turn the appointments process into an opportunity for political extortion, as Senator Shelby of Alabama has done over 70 times. Our Founders could never have imagined that filibusters would become a routine means of blocking legislation desired by the majority of Americans’ representatives, let alone at 142 times the rate from 1917 to 1972.

The House today is just as bad. Under the Republican-designed “Hastert Rule,” it lets a 26% minority block legislation when the GOP is split, even if the Dems are unanimous and favor a bill. (Since the practice requires a majority of the majority, and the House is roughly split between parties, a 26% minority of the whole House, by blocking action in the GOP, can prevent a bill from coming to the floor even if 74% of the whole House want it to pass.)

This practice makes a mockery of majority rule. And yet it is not yet even a decade old. So this perversion of majority rule cannot be blamed on our Founders, even with aid of the lies about history now customary in American politics.

In the House, nearly two-thirds of self-identified Tea Party members are from the Old, Deep South or Border States. Nearly twenty percent are from Texas alone. With the help of Fox and its huge propaganda machine, the South is making big waves. But it’s still largely the same old place, except where demographic changes are slowly turning it blue.

Conclusion: the South will rise again, over our prone bodies, but only if we let it

Who or what is responsible for turning our Founders’ prescriptions for collegial government into instruments of minority veto, extortion and gridlock? To answer that question, we must look to history.

From our old Articles of Confederation to the present day, one region of our country has always coveted loose and weak government, no central control, and minority vetoes. That was our South.

The South has always had a different culture and a wildly different attitude toward government from the rest of us. Slavery was the primary reason, but not the only one.

From its very first settlement by Europeans, the South was different. It was an agrarian society based on vestiges of feudal land tenure. At first those vestiges were slavery. Later came sharecropping. The most recent step is the pervasive bossism that characterizes Southern culture today.

All this should be no surprise. Our South began as a landed aristocracy based on slavery. Jefferson and Washington were among its few aristocrats. Its land tenure and rules of operation were as unfair and unequal as anything in France under Louis XIV, likely more so.

Not quite a century after our Founding, the South fought our bloodiest-ever war to retain its immorally unequal system. When it lost, it surrendered militarily but fought a rear-guard action in Congress and the courts. It has done so ever since. The so-called “Tea Party” is just its latest manifestation—with a deceptive name cleverly devised to make us think of our Founding and of Massachusetts (which claims no Tea Party member in either House).

For about a century, the South’s rear-guard political action was highly successful. Why shouldn’t it have been? With Lincoln murdered and a Southern fifth-columnist (Andrew Johnson) in the White House, the South could (and did) reverse most of the North’s post-Civil War policy. After a brief Reconstruction renaissance, Jim Crow kept African-Americans in a state of near slavery for most of the next century.

When a semblance of equal opportunity finally dawned over the South, its culture of bossism remained. Slowly and grudgingly, despite large pockets of horrendous racism, the South accepted the idea of equal opportunity, independent of race. But the notion that someone must be boss, and that others should serve him remained, even as the importance of skin color waned. The boss has always been a male, maybe with an Iron Magnolia standing behind him.

The South’s leaders may have been selfish and anachronistic. But they have never been stupid, at least in politics. With others to do their menial work for them, they have had lots of time to think, plan and plot.

And think, plan and plot they did. From the very Founding of our nation, they knew that the North (and eventually the West) would become more populous, more wealthy, more industrial, more scientific, and more powerful than their agrarian and hierarchical society. How could it be otherwise? Their society existed for the benefit of the few; ours exists to expand the horizons of the many. They foreswore the enormous benefits of social cohesion from the very beginning.

They sought from the outset to aggrandize their region and increase their power by political, not economic, means. And they were clever and successful, maybe beyond their wildest dreams.

How so? Let me count the ways. The Great Compromise gives each state two senators, regardless of size, which can never be taken away without a state’s consent. So now humble Wyoming, with 576 thousand people, has two senators, just like California, with 38 million, or about 66 times as many. As a result, the people of our most populous and most productive state have one-sixty-sixth the voting power in the Senate of people from Wyoming. The South, of course, with its generally smaller and less populated states, is the primary beneficiary of this gross departure from the most basic principle of democracy: one person, one vote.

Our mal-apportioned Senate was far from the only Constitutional time bomb that clever Southern politicians put away for later use. An inevitably conservative Supreme Court (made so by lifetime tenure and unavoidable age) upheld the notion of slaves as property in the infamous Dred Scott decision. Later it upheld the farce of “separate but equal” treatment in Plessy v. Ferguson. Like a crumbling but still solid dike, the Court held the tide of racial and social progress back decades—all in service of the South’s unique culture.

In the last half-century, some Southern leaders have seen the writing on the wall. But most still cannot accept it. So they have taken the filibuster—a procedure intended to be rare and to permit delay—and have fashioned it into a tool of minority dominance, extortion and gridlock. They have exalted the “gentlemanly” custom of Senate “holds” (a mere threat of filibuster) into a hideous weapon of extortion, which Alabama’s Shelby used over 70 times in attempts to extract concessions favorable to his state. And now, with the so-called “Hastert Rule,” they have converted the House into a larger and more unruly Senate, in which a 26% minority can block any legislation, shut down our government, and bring our nation to the brink of default.

The South’s pols can get away with all this for three reasons only. First, their predecessors and mentors helped draft our Plan. Second, their region’s pols have been masters of using our Constitution for delay and obstruction for our entire history.

Third—and most important—we in the North and West (and large parts of the Midwest) have been dozing. We’ve been oblivious to how the South—a small and largely backward region of our nation—has been taking over our national government and bending it to its own ends.

As Southerners learned in our Civil War, Yankees are slow to boil. So after losing that war, the South has tried to control and even govern this country by stealth and chicanery. That has been the state of affairs for 150 years now.

Enough is enough. The rest of our nation has the population, the wealth, the education, the industry, the science, the inventiveness, and (if it came to that again) the military power. No one wants another civil war. But we cannot forever be governed by an anachronistic minority culture, utterly foreign to our majority values, even if it exists within our present national borders.

Federalism gives the South the right and the power to stay mostly as it is for as long as it likes. But it cannot force its alien culture on the rest of us.

If the South wants to leave this Union, we should let it go this time, with our blessing. But it should leave its nukes behind. Jewish and Italian immigrants invented them, whom the South would never have admitted to its Confederacy. And with its current anti-government “philosophy,” the South never would have funded nukes’ development by government (which at one time commandeered almost 10% of our national electric energy to enrich uranium). Anyway, a nuclear-armed rogue state like Texas would destabilize geopolitics even more than The Little Kim.

So states that are uncomfortable with our democracy should go quietly, leave their nukes behind, and close the door firmly behind them. But if they want to stay, they should be prepared to abide by the most basic principle of democracy throughout human history: majority rule.

We Northerners, Westerners, and most Mid-Westerners have waited two centuries to see that principle at work as our Founders intended, and as most of the rest of the world now operates. We are getting impatient.

Coda: A Truly Alien Culture

What makes the South alien to the rest of American culture? For our entire history, the easy answer has been racism, the justification for and legacy of slavery.

But there are deeper and more persistent differences. As racism wanes—and, yes, it is on the run, even in the South!—these other differences matter more and more.

The South is full of anomalies. The most important may be its consistent and adamant support for Wall Street. In every attempt to restrain them, our rogue bankers have found their strongest congressional allies in the South.

At first glance, this makes no sense whatsoever. Didn’t Yankee bankers finance the North’s victory in the Civil War? Didn’t they help finance Sherman’s terrible march through Georgia? Wouldn’t the South, as our nation’s least developed region (still!), benefit from a more rational, fairer banking system less devoted to gambling and swindling? Why would the South, which guards its unique culture and regional differences like the most scared treasure, consistently support policies that centralize economic power in Manhattan—a place whose culture could not be more different?

But culture need not be logical. As my first Russian teacher once said about language, it’s psychological, not logical.

And so we have recent history. Time after time, Southern Senators have exercised their votes, their filibusters and their “holds” to keep Wall Street unfettered and firmly in control of national finance. Alabama Senator Shelby’s personal crusades against Elizabeth Warren, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and Nobel-Prize-winner Peter Diamond as candidate for the Fed are just the highlights of a long and (so far) successful march of Southern pols on Washington for Wall Street.

Two easy explanations for this anomaly come to mind. First, outside booming Triangle Park, Atlanta, Miami and South Florida’s retirement community, much of the South is still poor. A little campaign money goes a long way. Wall Street’s money is a boon to Southern politicians and a good “investment” for Wall Street. The price of an Alabama pol is cheaper than, for example, a Californian or a New Yorker.

Second, LBJ’s civil rights laws and Nixon’s Southern Strategy turned the so-called “Solid South” from Democratic to Republican. Southern culture is nothing if not loyal. So the South bought the GOP’s adulation for Wall Street along with its muscular, unregulated capitalism. The South did so because the GOP, unlike LBJ’s Dems, agreed to carry its cultural baggage.

But I think these explanations are too glib. If you read a little about Senator Shelby, you cannot escape the suspicion that he really believes what he says. If not, he’s a better actor than Ronald Reagan.

So what motivates him and much of the South? I think it’s a combination of bossism, authoritarianism (including sexism, vis-à-vis Warren), and a cultural inferiority complex, of which anti-intellectualism is a part.

Wall Streeters are the straw bosses of finance, and the South loves its straw bosses. Anyway, what business does a woman like Warren, let alone a young one, have telling the straw bosses what to do? She isn’t even an Iron Magnolia.

As for Diamond, isn’t he one of those Yankee eggheads, of the same type that George Wallace once said “couldn’t park their bicycles straight” when they tried to integrate his precious all-white university? Aren’t they the ones who consistently undermined the South’s self-image with prickly and uncomfortable reasoning, both during and after the Civil War? Didn’t they even try to prove that Southerners weren’t real Christians when they supported slavery? What kind of perverse, sophistic reasoning is that?

Of all Americans, Southerners most deride Europe, with its internationalist and intellectual flavor. The irony is that, among all of us, they are most like Europeans—the European working class. They resemble the European peasants who, throughout the twentieth century, kept portraits of Napoleon in their homes, waiting for another strong man to grant them egalité.

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., began his non-violent struggle, it came as much more of a shock to the South than to the rest of the nation. It was the first time that any free people in the South had ever risen up against their bosses. The early twentieth century’s labor struggles had passed the South by, mostly because the South had little industry besides plantations.

A white Southern nobody killed King because King was a highly successful revolutionary, not just for civil rights, but for equality and economic justice for all. King was disturbing the natural order of things, meaning boss rule. The tragic irony was that people like James Earl Ray, in the long run, had as much to gain from King’s revolution as people with mixed African blood. They just didn’t know it.

Health care is another another Southern anomaly, like banking. The South has by far the largest number of uninsured people of any US region. Yet it consistently votes to deny its poor people health insurance.

This is not just a political anomaly, but a mortal danger. With as much as 20% of its population—one out of five people!—lacking access to medical care, the South is a prime target for the next pandemic. It will rip through the South and decimate it just as the Black Plague decimated Western Europe. The uninsured maids, nannies, housekeepers, gardeners, waiters and cooks will bring it right into their bosses’ homes, places of travel and businesses.

But the South’s pols resist health-insurance reform just as adamantly as they resist any restraint on Wall Street’s financial power. Bosses are bosses, even if they phone their orders in from Manhattan.

To say this whole system is ripe for peaceful revolution would be an understatement of this new century. African-Americans won their rights to use the same hotel rooms, restaurants and bathrooms as whites. But when a misguided poor white killed King, their revolution ran out of steam.

The great tragedy was that King was just beginning to broaden his revolution and make it an economic one when he was killed. (Maybe that’s why he was killed, but I’m not a fan of conspiracy theories. There was certainly enough racism alone to serve as motivation.) With all the many, well-deserved retrospectives of the March on Washington after half a century, most of them downplay or ignore that fact that it was for “jobs and freedom.”

Those words were on every placard for the March, in that order. Even then, jobs came first. For without economic sustenance and independence, there can be no freedom: we are all vassals of the bosses. If poor whites and poor blacks in the South ever recognize their common economic interests and the economic irrelevancy of skin color, we will see a new South, a new America, and perhaps a new world.

But in the meantime, we must deal with (to paraphrase That Idiot Rumsfeld) the Southern culture we have, not the one we would like. That culture is much like Europe’s in its bad old days, with bosses firmly in control and their underlings waiting, hats in hand, for a strong man like Napoleon to lead them to freedom.

We outside the South can’t do much about that. Culture can take decades or centuries to change.

Sometimes change happens faster. The change may involve hideous violence, like the French or Russian revolutions. But sometimes, with great leaders like King, Gandhi and Mandela, it can happen quickly and peacefully.

While we wait and hope for such change, the least we can do is abolish filibusters, which the South invented to protect its unique culture from erosion by majority rule. At very least, we shouldn’t let that uniquely backward culture subsume the rest of us.

Leadership is a heavy burden. Sometimes leaders have to do things even when it’s hard and when Fox’ moron-bullies will yell at them. They even have to do hard things knowing that John Boehner will try to counteract their every move by turning the House of Representatives into its own simulacrum of a filibuster machine.

But the Senate’s majority must restore majority rule to this country, quickly, boldly and surely. It’s long past time to do so, and there may never be a better time. If they act boldly, a nation fed up to the teeth with authoritarian bullies like Boehner will follow. The alternative is to let this nation inexorably become more and more like the South, and less and less like the America people my age once knew.

Footnote: Possible invidious comparisons between JFK and Ronald Reagan are almost too numerous to count. I will make only one. JKF advised us, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Reagan advised us that, “It’s your money.”

The contrast is not just between a grand vision and squalid shopkeepers’ selfishness. To youth, who are always ready to rebel against their elders’ questionable values, it’s a contrast between a life of meaning and a tawdry struggle for middle-class survival in a nation that can’t even give them employment commensurate with their education or vision.

All a president needs to capture today’s youth, permanently, is to do what JFK did: give them a lofty vision like the Peace Corps or a Moon shot. Then challenge them to make the world and their country better places to live. The current, underemployed “new generation” will grasp the baton with both hands and run with it, just as mine did.

And, sorry GOP, but keeping “your own money” won’t do the job. Thanks to you, our youth don’t have any money to keep. And their natural youthful exuberance and idealism won’t countenance such a squalid, selfish goal.


16 November 2013

Why New Jersey (and lately NYC)?

[For a recent popular post on Hillary Clinton’s political future, click here. For an update putting New Jersey and New York today in world-historical context, click here.]

Has anyone besides me noticed how New Jersey has become the focus of national political hope, for both parties? Does everyone else see how practical its leaders are?

You might call it the Stealth State. Without much fuss, and without much drama, it has elected three extraordinarily practical leaders, who make the trains run on time. None of them seems to care much about the vapid abstractions, name calling and political gamesmanship that have gripped Washington like some dread disease.

The most well known is Chris Christie, who just re-won the state governorship by a landslide. The second (in current renown) is Cory Booker, the former mayor of Newark, who handily won Frank Lautenberg’s old Senate seat recently. Third is Robert Menendez, the state’s senior Senator, who is as low-key as the President. You hardly ever hear him making noise because he’s too busy representing the people of his state and trying to make government work.

These three men are as different as different can be. Christie is white, a Republican (in a wildly blue state), and nearly obese. Booker is African-American and Democratic and looks so fit he could be a boxer. He’s a graduate of Stanford University and Yale Law School, two of the most elite and selective schools in our nation. Menendez, too, is a Democrat, of Cuban descent. He commands English so perfectly and precisely that his ancestors could have come over on the Mayflower.

Although so different on their surfaces, these three men have two things in common. First, they represent the two political parties and main ethnic groups whose cooperation or discord will make or break this nation. Second, they all have a vital trait for public servants: courage.

Although a Republican who calls himself conservative, Christie literally embraced the President, who helped his state survive Sandy. Christie gratefully took emergency money, as well as money to expand Medicaid in his state. He used those federal funds to make his people’s lives better.

With that money, Christie even helped the poor. Yes, the poor: those invisible people whom our social Darwinists gingerly step over as they go to their health clubs and stock brokers. And Christie helped them at a time when just being seen in a photograph with our twice-duly-elected President was (and still is) anathema to extremists in his political party.

The other two New Jersey leaders showed courage, too. Booker rushed into a burning building, heedless of his own safety, to save a woman from burns or death. Menendez made a political career fighting for ordinary people against the moneyed interests just across the Hudson.

Why is this so? What’s different about New Jersey? Is there something in the air or the water? Could we stem our national decline by selling it nationwide?

No, New Jersey has no secret local elixir. What makes it special is its geographic and social position.

The state’s heart sits just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. But it doesn’t have Broadway, Madison Avenue, or Wall Street. So it can’t live on fiction, subtle lies, or other people’s money. And unlike Manhattan, it doesn’t control the national media, so it can’t continually downplay its shortcomings or beat its own chest as the Center of the Known Universe.

New Jersey is Everyman’s state. It has to focus on real self-improvement. It has to work for a living. It has to succeed the same way the rest of us out here on every Main Street do, or perish.

Sitting just across the Hudson from Manhattan, New Jersey can see clearly what undeserved wealth, pride and arrogance have wrought, not to mention media cluelessness about the Tea Party’s true origins and the boring procedural rules that are breaking our Republic.

New Jersey could watch the brave first responders in the South Tower die after New York’s self-aggrandizing mayor failed to get them radios that work. It could watch other brave workers get emphysema and a host of chronic ailments from 9/11’s toxic stew, after that same self-aggrandizing mayor (with presidential ambitions) failed to wear his respirator, in a public display of foolish bravado and a deadly example.

And as the years after 9/11 went by, New Jersey could look across the Hudson and watch Gotham tear itself into two unequal castes: workers and the so-called “elite.” It could see economic forces, neglected and sometimes designed by that very same elite, forcing the ordinary workers who make New York run flee like economic refugees into the Outer Boroughs (and into New Jersey!), leaving Manhattan a ghetto of students, the young, the poor, the old in their rent-controlled apartments, and the self-satisfied rich, who own and run it all. New Jersey also could watch, at close range, Wall Street’s rogue bankers tighten their death grip on the national and global economies.

Unlike Manhattan, New Jersey really has everything. It has lots of industry. It has pharmaceutical companies in abundance, including some of the nation’s most advanced. And it has lots and lots of people who do all the things that make our complex society run, from flying planes, through making things, to selling insurance and cars and packing meat and produce. It even has people who commute daily across or under the Hudson to work in Gotham’s fantasy world.

Quietly, wisely, and without fuss, New Jersey has made its Everyman’s everything work. It has ignored the pointless abstract disputes about “smaller government” and so-called “liberty” (aka selfishness) that are tearing the rest of the country apart.

Elite New Yorkers may be vain and self-regarding, but they also are not stupid. They see what is happening, too. That’s why New Yorkers just elected Democrat Bill de Blasio mayor. They did so by a a vote of 74%, against 24% for his Republican rival, with 97% of precincts reporting. That’s a margin of 50%, more than twice as great as Lyndon Johnson’s historic 22.6-point landslide over Barry Goldwater in 1964 (61.1% to 38.5%).

Uncharacteristically, New York City is late to the party. With Christie, Booker and Menendez, New Jersey has been ahead of New York City for years. Now de Blasio, whose wife is African-American, ran on a platform of reducing the City’s gross economic inequality and revivifying its American Dream. And he won big.

The American Dream has never been a guarantee of anything. Not home ownership. Not income. Not any particular standard of living. Those are economic indicators, not dreams.

The American Dream is only a promise: the promise of a fair shake. It’s written right into our Constitution, in our Bill of Rights, our Civil War Amendments (Thirteenth through Fifteenth) and the part that outlaws titles of nobility. We fought our bloodiest war just to bring that dream closer to some of us.

It’s a dream that no one—ever—can get ahead of you just on the basis of race, national origin, gender, class, religion, family, or the educational advantage that comes from being born in the right Zip Code. It’s a dream of social mobility: that everyone’s life and success will depend on their own native talent, energy and hard work.

That dream is the essence of America. Of course it’s not yet fully real. Maybe it never will be; economic and class differences will always be with us. That’s why we call it a “dream.”

The same may be true of racism. That’s why our only true national saint, Martin Luther King, Jr., called his great speech against racism a dream—part of our American Dream.

But the promise and the goal of eliminating these social imperfections, and our centuries-long, persevering effort to make the promise real, were and are the only things that make us Yanks “exceptional.”

Every nation on Earth has a privileged elite. There is nothing “exceptional” about that. What once made us exceptional, and some day may again, was promising everyone a fair shake, and making that promise credible enough for everyone to live by.

In the Great War, Soviet Russia’s survival was at stake at Stalingrad. The Commissars set up rear-line machine guns, facing their own terrified troops, to make sure they fought the Nazis well. Better to die fighting for your country than to be gunned down as a useless coward by your own compatriots.

We were different. Our Tuskegee Airmen (African-Americans) and our 442nd Regimental Combat Team (Japanese-Americans) fought like tigers, willingly, for our American Dream. They needed no machine-gun motivation. They followed their personal American dreams to military distinction and decoration, even though their loved ones at home were oppressed, respectively, by Jim Crow and the Japanese Internment.

That was and is America’s secret, not the Bomb. In fact, it was our American Dream that brought us the great European physicists, including Albert Einstein, who invented the Bomb. (Most of them were Jews or Italians—not exactly the favored few at that time.) Our most powerful weapon and source of strength ever was and remains our unique social cohesion, which comes from giving everyone the credible promise of a fair shake.

Our national secret is certainly not simplistic abstractions like “smaller government.” Smaller than what, Zimbabwe’s? “Smaller government” is just political code for the Old Deep South and keeping the little guy down.

Bill de Blasio’s Republican opponent, Joe Lhota, was a strong candidate. A lifelong New Yorker, he has vast private-sector experience, in finance and media. He had been Rudy Guiliani’s Deputy Mayor, and he ran New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, our nation’s largest mass-transit system. With time out for disasters like Sandy, that system gets millions of New Yorkers to work and play, on time, every day.

In normal times, a man like Joe would never have lost by 50%. That may have been the greatest landslide in any contested American election in which millions voted.

But these are not normal times. These are times when one of our two great political parties has forgotten the American Dream in a mad dash for ideological purity and the favor and money of the rich and powerful. So despite his impressive credentials, Joe Lhota lost big—maybe bigger than anyone else in our political history.

The public-relations folks and scientific demagogues who have taken over the Republican Party give the American Dream lip service. They’ve spent the last three decades trying to convince us that it means the “liberty” to beggar your neighbor, if you happen to be richer, smarter, stronger, better educated, or better connected.

But that’s not what it means at all. That sounds more like Nazi Germany than America. And what will our elite do with that kind of dream when their downtrodden, struggling and despised underlings stop following them? mine the ore and smelt the metals and assemble their private planes themselves? No matter. I guess they’ll just buy their planes from Canada, China and Brazil, as we devolve into a paper-shuffling society like London and Manhattan.

You would think the so-called “party of business” would know something about motivating people. But Lhota’s party has forgotten the central motivation that moves every one of us to work hard and improve our lots in life: our credible promise of a fair shake for all.

“All” is the key word here. It includes our poor and our near-poor—those who work two jobs just to survive and still suffer “food insecurity”—a euphemism for malnutrition or starvation—in the richest nation on Earth. It includes our struggling middle class and the people who lost their homes in the Crash of 2008, or in Sandy. It even includes the millions of undocumented immigrants who tend our gardens, make our beds, prepare our meals, build and clean our homes, cut our meat, and nanny our kids.

When we relax that promise, we all lose. And we can yet lose all. Thank you, New Jersey—and New York City (belatedly)—for reminding us of that promise and who we really are.

Coda: The Arc of History

The credible promise of a fair shake is no single nation’s property, let alone ours. Nor is its preservation the task of a single caste.

Neither priests nor politicians own it. A businessman and industrialist named Henry Ford served it well a century ago with his then-startling $5-a-day wage. That single act jump-started our Yankee “consumer society.”

It made us, for a short time, the richest and happiest society ever. And when the Great War came, it made us the strongest. The same assembly lines that turned out millions of cars—because the workers who made them could afford to buy them—turned out the tanks, trucks, jeeps and planes that won the war.

The fair-shake promise’s waxing and waning trace the arc of human history. Some of us humans have always sought to get ahead by squeezing others. Getting most or all of us to wise up is, in large measure, how human civilization advances.

It all started with slavery, in every part of the globe. That’s what the Old Testament tells us. It tells how one small group fought slavery and won deliverance from it. That simple story has inspired the squeezed throughout recorded history. In recent times it has inspired peaceful revolutions in India, South Africa and our own homeland. (That same small group’s descendants are now squeezing the Palestinians, but that’s another story.)

Feudalism came next, although it often commingled with slavery. It lasted for over a millennium. We abandoned it when business, trade, specialization, travel and (eventually) capitalism made it impracticable. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” required a more flexible and adaptable social structure.

Next—and partly overlapping—came monarchy with aristocracy. The king or queen and the elite squeezed the “common people,” what today we call ordinary folks.

The American, French and Russian Revolutions stopped all that, although not equally gently. The last two failed because their motivation was revenge: the squeezed became the squeezers. Marx’s “dictatorship of the proletariat” turned out to be no better than any other tyranny.

China’s revolution was (on a per capita basis) less bloody and horrible for two reasons. First, it was primarily against foreign colonial control, and less a civil war. Second, after its revolution, China just snapped back into its historical shape: an Empire run by a vast Mandarin bureaucracy, which today calls itself the “Communist Party.”

Now every major power but China, and nearly all the significant minor ones, is a democracy, at least in form. But democracy doesn’t stop the squeezing. There is always an elite, whose members are smarter and more ruthless than average, or at least more persistent. They are quite clever in putting their own interests above everyone else’s. They are equally clever in rationalizing why that’s supposed to be good for everyone, even when it self-evidently isn’t.

Today economics provides the rationalization du jour. It’s good for workers at Wal Mart to have to take food stamps to eat properly, our elite say, because that makes its products cheaper for everyone. It’s good for 40 million people to lack health care; in some strange, unspecified way their suffering is supposed to advance our Yankee medical innovation. (You would think just the opposite: the more people who go to doctors and hospitals with money, even if it’s tax money, the more money there will be to invent things, and the more doctors to do so.)

It’s good for workers (the story goes on) to have no unions, nor any other way of advancing their own interests, because squeezing them makes the haves better off. And we Yanks, being modest and humble, all think of ourselves as “haves,” even if we have no second home, private jet or even a luxury car.

Ninteenth-century muscular capitalism—a throwback—is the goal here. Let the bosses rule and fix workers’ meager pay, and forget Henry Ford’s $5-a-day apostasy. For our elite today, the fact that FDR’s regulated, unionized, twentieth-century capitalism was far more successful is disputed and forgotten. The elite of any age are often poor students of history.

Busting “trusts,” not busting unions, was what made us the world’s superpower. In combination with African-American and women’s liberation, it made us the shining city on a hill. That shine lasted for about half a century but is now tarnishing. We can restore it, slowly but easily, if we just keep our eye on the ball: that credible promise of a fair shake for all.

We humans are an odd species, with oddly mixed motives. We don’t have an instinctive community, like bees, ants or termites. Every single one of us has strong and complex individual needs, desires and dreams. Under the wrong circumstances, every one of us will fight and die for them.

Yet every single one of our remarkable accomplishments—air travel, space travel, nuclear power, the Internet, the EU and the UN, for example—is collective. It came out of our ability to cooperate, willingly, for long times and in large numbers. The last two came out of an understandable and rational desire to avoid wars that might ultimately extinguish us.

Throughout history, some of us have understood the physical and biological world better than others. The most familiar names are Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and Isaac Newton.

Just so, some of our leaders have understood our social world and social evolution better than others. The most familiar names are Jesus, Queen Elizabeth I, Jefferson (despite his keeping slaves!), Lincoln, FDR, Gandhi, King, and Mandela.

These great leaders all understood two important things. First, revenge revolutions are counterproductive. Replacing one set of elite squeezers with another changes nothing but the deck chairs on the Titanic. Second, the cooperative spirit runs deep within us, although it sometimes requires genius to bring it out.

Jesus, Gandhi, King, and Mandela had that genius. So (to a lesser extent) did Queen Elizabeth I. Lincoln and FDR, although also political geniuses, had to manage great wars just to give community a chance.

So still our species stumbles onward, two steps forward, one step back.

There are encouraging recent signs of progress. The Internet makes it easier for good ideas to spread and bad ones to be extinguished. The last century’s horrible wars, which almost culminated in our species’ self-extinction, have made leaders everywhere look for alternatives. Our recent Yankee counterexamples—Dubya’s needless wars, plus Vietnam—have even put us muscular Yanks in a less bellicose mood.

The promise of a fair shake for all takes no specific form. In Henry Ford’s 1914 heyday, it was that $5-a-day wage. A bit later it was the right of workers to unionize and bargain collectively for better wages and working conditions. For Dr. King’s time and people, it was the rights to sit, eat, pee and sleep in the same rooms or buildings with whites, to vote with them—and not to stay separate but unequal outcasts. For women, it was the right to decide for themselves between work and family, and the ability (still far from fully realized) to bring their cooperative and life-preserving instincts into our political sphere.

For 40 million today, it’s access to the superb medical care that the rest of enjoy as a birthright. For eleven million undocumented immigrants, it’s being treated as people, not forced labor or statistics, and having their hard work and their international displacement—the result of huge economic forces beyond their control, not some dark conspiracy—recognized humanely and rationally. For many honest poor people today, it’s the most basic democratic right (the right to vote), unencumbered by inconvenient and expensive measures to stop so-called “voter fraud,” which almost never happens in real life.

Times, mores, politics, details and specific goals change. But the goal of promising a fair shake for all—and making that promise credible—never should. The trick is recognizing the argument, “What’s good for me is good for everyone,” as an inherent conflict of interest, and nearly always a lie. Thinking more broadly and longer term is the beginning of wisdom. The details can come later.

For that’s what makes us a community, and a willing community is what makes us rich and strong. It’s what makes us work for each other, as well as for ourselves. And that’s what differentiates our modern societies from the Pharoahs’ Egypt, Louis XIV’s France, Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Mao’s China, and North Korea, Syria and Zimbabwe today.

It’s a simple prescription, really. Give everyone a fair shake, or at least the credible promise of one. Don’t try to get ahead by squeezing some, even if some used to squeeze you. That may work for a while, but it’s not a durable solution to any problem.

We’ve tried squeezing throughout human history, and it’s never worked for long. Eventually, history rejected every form of squeezing: slavery, feudalism, monarchy, aristocracy, robber-baron capitalism, and Communism. Whether so-called “modern” capitalism joins this long list depends upon whether it, too, is just another euphemism for squeezing. The jury on that point is still out.

It doesn’t matter how clever you are, or how many statistics you use to justify the squeezing. In the long run, you won’t win, because squeezing goes against the grain of what and who we are as humans.

We Yanks knew this simple lesson in the last half of the last century. We were on our way to teach the whole world. But then a grade-B actor named Reagan became our president. He fed us a simplistic lie and a moral atrocity. Government, he said, was the problem, never a solution. And our social and political views should revolve around a single lodestar: keeping “your own money.”

Reagan justified making selfishness a national value with the usual rationalization. Keeping the little guy down and keeping more of your own money, he told us, would make us all better off.

Oddly enough, those were precisely the arguments made by nearly-impeached former president Andrew Johnson after our Civil War. Help the freed slaves, he argued, and you will have less money and they will become indolent and uppity. The more the rationalizations for dumb—as distinguished from enlightened—self-interest change, the more they stay the same.

Then a ruthless and clever Australian came to our shores (and England’s) to spread the false gospel of Reagan. We made him a citizen and let him set up history’s richest and most powerful propaganda machine. We even let him call it “fair and balanced” without calling him out on that patently self-promoting lie.

The rest is history, sad history. Mere decades ago, we Yanks had a commanding, if not insuperable, lead over others in making our promise of a fair shake for all real and credible. Today our sails have dumped wind, and we are at risk of falling behind.

Now we have competition. There is the EU, with Angela Merkel regularly making political miracles to keep it whole, strong, financially sound and free. (She preached austerity to get her own Germans on board and now is backing off so as not to squeeze Europe’s south.) There are even Russia and China, which, step by step, are working to end their respective millennial squeezing of their own underdogs and to put everyone willingly to work. The reforms that Xi Jinping announced just last week are part of this salubrious process.

But never mind, my fellow Yanks. Backsliding is part of the human condition. We can still stay ahead, and maybe increase our lead again, if we just drop the bad idea that squeezing some of us is the way for all of us to get ahead. Taken to its logical conclusion, that bad idea is not too far from slavery. The first nation or culture to drop it permanently will take us to the stars.

Footnote: Actually, Johnson was impeached, i.e., indicted by the House of Representatives. He avoided conviction in the Senate and removal from office by a single vote. In describing him as “nearly-impeached,” I use the term loosely, as most non-lawyers do, meaning impeached and removed from office.

Oddly enough, JKF lauded the person whose vote saved Andrew Johnson from removal in his book Profiles in Courage. I beg to differ. Johnson’s removal might have caused some additional turbulence during Reconstruction. But our whole nation might not still be in thrall to the Old, Deep South, which is the prime mover behind today’s so-called “Tea Party.”

Johnson’s policies and then-extraordinary legislative vetoes set our nation’s social development and racial harmony back decades, if not a full century. Elections have consequences, and so do assassinations. The crushing irony is that JFK’s own assassination had a similar effect.


08 November 2013

Hillary 2016

[For a new blog dedicated to proposing and discussing a way to restore majority rule in Congress and save our Republic, click here.]


Hillary’s growth
The competition
The gender factor
Changing times
Conclusion: her day has come
Coda: Why not start now?
Anecdote: My 2008 Poll-Worker Experience

“The times they are a-changin’.” — Bob Dylan


Hillary Clinton is a natural segue to my recent paean to female leaders. So let’s cut right to the chase. Will she run and can she win? I think the answer to both questions is “yes.”

Actually, the two answers are related. She will run because, this time, she can win. And she can win because: (1) she’s a woman; (2) she’s a Democrat, (3) she now has more relevant national experience than anyone the GOP is likely to nominate, and (4) her name recognition easily eclipses that of any possible rival in either party. And she will run also because she has had an obvious drive to be president for about a decade; her current spate of public appearances attests to that.

As readers of this blog know, in her 2008 campaign I had no great admiration for Hillary. For most of her career before that, she had been a political groupie rather than a leader. Her actual experience was light, and her 2008 campaign against the President was dirty, self-aggrandizing and bordering on racism. (She herself is no racist, but evidently she had some poor political advice and would do or say anything to win.)

At times, her judgment on matters of foreign policy also had been poor. She supported our needless War in Iraq without even reading the National Intelligence Estimate, which questioned our reasons for starting it. And she continued to support it for far too long—mostly for self-evident reasons of domestic politics—pivoting only after her husband and key members of her party did.

Her judgment on Pakistan was equally short-sighted. She supported the dictator Musharraf and stiffed Benazir Bhutto, again (in my view) for domestic political reasons. Think how much different Pakistan and our relationship with it would be today with Bhutto as prime minister.

In that chaotic country, there was never a guarantee that Bhutto would survive or, if she did, lead well. But Bhutto was a smart, resourceful, courageous and quintessentially good woman. As a woman herself and small-d democrat, Hillary should have pulled out all the stops to support Bhutto, even as a candidate here. She didn’t. (Pakistani extremists assassinated Bhutto during our long presidential campaign.)

But people, times, and circumstances change. Four important things have changed since 2008, and all make Hillary a much better and more viable candidate for president than she was then.

Hillary’s growth

First, Hillary herself had changed. She has grown and paid some serious dues. A lawyer and fierce advocate for most of her life, she took the hardest diplomatic job in the world for over four years and succeeded.

The right wing has tried assiduously, with some success, to drown out news of her success in Libya with incessant lamentation about the tragic assassinations of Ambassador Stevens and his team members. But without Hillary, the mad tyrant Qaddafi would still be alive and very much in power.

Hillary and her diplomatic team managed to get Security-Council approval for use of air power in Libya, without which the President never would have acted to help the rebels. She did so at the last minute, under enormous pressure, without suffering a single dissent.

Hillary’s work was a minor diplomatic miracle and a triumph for self-determination and justice. If you want to know how much it meant, just look at Syria in comparison. Libya might be just the same today without Hillary’s good work.

And Hillary did it all without flamboyance, ego, self-aggrandizement or hogging credit, as a good diplomat should. Her success shows that she can be a team player and team leader at the same time. Before becoming our Secretary of State, she never had the chance.

The competition

The second major change is in Hillary’s rivals. She no longer faces the kind of politician who comes around only once every century or so.

Barack Obama rose like a rocket out of nowhere, overcoming a racial handicap in a still-racist society, for one reason only. He has absolutely extraordinary political talent: off-the-scale intelligence (both analytic and emotional), judgment, empathy, perseverance, and tactical and strategic skill.

From long before he became our President, Barack Obama was a “natural.” As President, he inherited a nation falling apart economically, deeply in debt, and bogged down in two needless, stalemated, bloody and hideously expensive wars. Now, six years later, our economy (if not our politics) is coming together again, one war is over (for us) and the other will be winding down next year. And our projected deficit for this fiscal year is about 40% what it was in 2009, the first year of Obama’s presidency.

Not only that, Obama is the first president in our history to give most, if not all, of us access to good medical care. He prevailed where others, including both Hillary and Bill, had failed for an entire century.

And that’s still not all. The President ordered a ninja attack that killed bin Laden and opened a treasure trove of intelligence on Al Qaeda. He has decimated Al Qaeda Central with drone and ninja attacks. He has kept us safe for his entire tenure in office, except for the minor attack on the Boston Marathon. In the fields of energy and global warming, he is phasing out coal (by far our dirtiest and most climate-unfriendly source of energy) with fair and sensible regulation; he has made a deal with automakers to double cars’ fuel efficiency; he has maintained subsidies for renewable energy; and he has allowed the “fracking” craze in oil and natural gas to continue, while placing it under close environmental scrutiny.

This is, to put it mildly, an extraordinary record. And our President has done all this despite the most adamant and extreme opposition that any president has had to face since our Civil War, based partly on the color of his skin. For these achievements alone, he will be ranked as a good president, if not a great one, in extraordinarily difficult times. And he still has over two years to go.

If we Yanks have the collective wisdom to give undivided government a try (for a change), and to put the House in Democratic hands next year, we will see lots more change we can believe in. And if that happens, Hillary herself will be the beneficiary of President Obama’s skill in exploiting the GOP’s extremism, obstructionism and extortion politically. Like a jujitsu master, he will have turned the momentum of the GOP’s self-evident overreaching against it.

So a large part of my opposition to Hillary in 2008 was based on a simple truth: Barack Obama was the better candidate. As his record in office shows, we win as a nation when we elect the better candidate, no matter how good or how bad both may seem.

My life’s proudest vote was not for Obama, although I cast it enthusiastically for him, both times. My proudest vote was for Hubert Humphrey over Richard Nixon in 1968. If more progressives had thought like me: (1) our pointless, losing War in Vietnam would have ended several years earlier; (2) we would not have devastated the region with napalm, unexploded ordnance and Agent Orange—permanently staining our national reputation and giving a permanent headache (literally) to many of our brave troops; (3) our military would have recovered its common sense and public support much earlier, perhaps giving it the confidence to resist misuse in Iraq and Afghanistan; (4) the Watergate scandal never would have happened; and (5) Richard Nixon never would have taught our Republican party the false lesson that demagoguery and negative advertising matter more than policy and ordinary people’s lives.

History matters. Elections matter. And we should never accept second best, whether for our top leader or our party’s nominee. Just think how much better off we all would be today, in every way, if a few hundred more disillusioned Dems and independents had voted for Al Gore in 2000, instead of staying home or voting for Ralph Nader.

But now Hillary will be the best. With the possible exception of Joe Biden who, in my judgment, will be too old and cannot win the nomination against her, she is better than any other candidate likely to run (let alone win) in either party. The only possible Republican exception, Jon Huntsman, Jr., the GOP will never nominate in its present extremist, fractured, and semi-delusional state. And no other mere governor or senator can make up Hillary’s vast head start in national and foreign experience—let alone national campaigning—in just three years.

Anyway, it will take several presidential election cycles, if ever, before the GOP reforms itself and becomes a serious national political party again. Instead it may fracture into two parties or go the way of the Whigs. So, barring war or other unlikely cataclysm, whoever wins the Democratic nomination in 2016 will likely win the presidency.

This prediction holds even if the GOP manages to nominate a viable, moderate candidate like Chris Christie, who just re-won the governorship of New Jersey by a near landslide. Christie is a good man—although not nearly as well qualified to be president as Huntsman. But he will have the same problem that Romney had and that Huntsman, being more moderate still, would have more acutely.

Neither Christie nor anyone else will be able to satisfy the GOP’s red-meat extremists and, at the same time, appeal to the general electorate. He will face the same problem that Romney faced: having to lose the nomination or spin like a weathervane between the primary and general elections, creating the image of a soulless, belief-less, lying salesman.

Romney was one of the smoothest salesmen I have seen running for president in my 68 years. He could say two different things to two different audiences on two separate days and sound convincing and credible to both. He was a master at that sort of “finesse,” which our lying professions (PR, advertising and political “consulting”) have perfected over the last generation, to our serious national detriment.

Yet Romney lost the general election, in large measure for that very reason. There are still enough voters in this nation who remember what happened the day or week before, and who object to a liar and weathervane in our highest office.

Romney was one of the best salesmen we ever had in politics. Apparently he perfected his skill early in his youth, trying to sell the Mormon Church to French Catholics on his mandatory Mormon mission abroad. If Christie or Huntsman tries the same tactics, he will get creamed, both because neither is as skilled (or as unscrupulous) a salesman as Mitt Romney and because everyone will remember Mitt.

The simple fact is that you can’t win our presidency when so vocal and adamant a minority of your party has an ideology and agenda that is so far outside the national mainstream as the Tea Party’s. You can put a good face on it. You can try. You can make lots of noise, as Mitt and his PR legions did.

But you can’t win. And if you can’t win in a down and dragging economy, in the midst of two inconclusive wars, and against a half-black president in a still-racist society, you certainly can’t do it in 2016, when the economy will be much stronger, we will be at peace (thanks to that selfsame half-black president), and the Dems’ candidate’s genetics will reflect not just a 12% minority, but an absolute majority of both people and voters.

The gender factor

Even in 2008, the vast yearning of women for one of their own in the top job was self-evident. And who could blame them?

That yearning has every justification, in both fairness and hope. Women have had the vote for 93 years now, and it’s about time they got a chance at top leadership. As for hope, I can’t say more about women’s potential as leaders than I did in my recent post.

Politically, the impact of Hillary’s gender is huge. Women put Barack Obama in the White House, twice. They helped save us from today’s clueless GOP taking both Houses of Congress. They even helped make Democrat Terry McAuliffe governor of Virginia in last Tuesday’s off-year elections.

As women become more prominent in politics and the news, their influence will only increase. When Hillary gets the Dems’ nod, women’s support and enthusiasm for her will be almost as solid, and every bit as strong, as African-Americans’ for Obama. But unlike African-Americans, women are not a minority; they are the majority, both of our entire population and of registered voters.

Finally, notwithstanding her earlier weak judgment in foreign policy, Hillary, as a woman herself, will know how to maximize the support of all women for her and the Dems. As we saw in 2008, she is a tough, resilient, relentless and skillful campaigner. With her understandable attraction for females, who have never yet seen one of their own in the White House, she well may be unbeatable.

Changing times

From Queen Hatshepsut, through Queen Elizabeth I, to Angel Merkel today, women have done superb jobs in top leadership, the few times they got the chance. But for evolutionary reasons, both biological and social, they never got the chance in wartime. And the sad truth about our species is that we’ve been at almost constant war, at least somewhere on our small globe, for most of our history.

Yet now, for the moment, our Yankee wars are over, or at least winding down. No one in this country (at least no one sane) wants another needless foreign military adventure. We will go to war now only if we or one of our close allies (such as Israel) is under attack or immediate threat. The risk of that happening exists, but it’s low.

The rest of the world has changed, too. The last century’s bellicose tyrants are gone. There are no more Hitlers, Tojos, Stalins or even Maos in charge of great powers today. Instead, there are only Merkels, Abes, Camerons, Hollandes, Putins and Xis. These are men and women who can reason and reason with others, and whose goals lie in preserving their people’s lives, stability, health and prosperity. That means avoiding war.

Even the lesser powers are changing. Iran has replaced Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a leader from the last century’s mold, with Hassan Rouhani, a leader for our more peaceful times. And it has done so in Iran’s first demonstrably free election since we helped depose its duly elected prime minister in 1953. Egypt’s military tyrants are conscious of strong pushback from within their own country (and not just from Muslim extremists!) and from ours. The Little Kim has fired his bellicose “defense” minister and softened his tune. Even the perpetually war-riven Congo seems to be approaching something like peace.

So by the time Hillary takes office, the world will be at peace, or at least more at peace than it has been for most of the last century, maybe in all history. Our police actions of ninjas and drones, awkwardly started by Dubya and superbly organized by our President, will continue to deal effectively with terrorists, as will our vast but now controversial counterintelligence effort. So now is a perfect time for a female leader, not just of the world’s fourth-largest economy, but of the first.

It’s also a perfect time for women’s evolutionary life-preserving instincts to prevail. Those were the instincts that pushed Hillary to work so hard to save the Libyan rebels trapped in Benghazi from slaughter. Those same instincts will now serve her well in a changing world in which even male leaders seek to preserve life rather than squander it. And those same instincts will continue a bold counter-terrorism strategy, which the globe’s great powers all now share.

Hillary can still make mistakes, at least in speech, if not in action. Her calling Russia’s and China’s policies toward Syria “despicable” made us feel good and self-righteous. Her outburst was sincere and probably accurate. But it was also undiplomatic and likely did no good.

What did do good was the President’s making a credible threat of military action, and then he and Secretary Kerry quickly following up when Russia grabbed at the chance of avoiding hostilities by ridding Syria of chemical weapons.

That wasn’t the main goal: Syria’s people are still subjected to Assad’s monstrous atrocities. But it’s a start. Neither Russia nor we want to see those chemical weapons fall into jihadis’ hands. And, after recent setbacks and wistful glances back toward the Cold War, the Russians and we have started to work together for peace, as we both should.

It’s a small step, but it’s a solid and important one. And that’s the way the world will progress from now on, small step by small step. Our species has a long way to go to establish a rational international order, but we’ve made a good start, in economics, in trying to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, and now in effectively outlawing chemical weapons almost everywhere.

The century before today saw Russia’s terrible revolution, two world wars, the first use of nuclear weapons (by us, their inventors), and a Cold War that almost culminated in our species’ self-extinction. Then there were three needless wars on our part: Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. After all those huge missteps, we humans might—just might—content ourselves with just putting one foot before the other—rational social evolution rather than bloody revolution or apocalypse.

It’s not yet clear whether Hillary has fully assimilated this invaluable lesson. But she appears to have come a long way from the woman of 2007-2008, who sought to be “one of the boys”—and consequently bellicose in debates—in order to get elected. If she can be her own woman now, and not try to ape the worst in men, she can be a good leader, maybe even a great one. As Shakespeare advised, “This above all: to thine own self be true.”

Now Hillary has a perfect opening. No sane person in America wants a bellicose president today. We’ve been there and done that, with Dubya. His policy was so “successful” that we fought two needless, decade-long, and inconclusive wars, at hideous expense. Long-term accomplishments, if any, remain to be seen. So Dubya’s own party didn’t invite him to its last convention. It wanted him hidden.

Anyway, foreign policy is no longer our nation’s main concern. Our ten (or eleven) gravest national problems are all domestic, and all of our own making. By 2016, they will have festered, on the average, for an entire generation. The current and probably continuing lull in grave international tension will give us a chance to clean our own house.

That is where Hillary shines. Her greatest strengths and greatest interest have always been in what happens inside our borders. She has the knowledge, the experience, and the empathy to take a nation that has drifted into bashing and even hating its poor and unfortunate (including undocumented immigrants) and put it on a new and better path. She has the passion, the perseverance and the rhetorical skill to replace selfishness as our chief national value with justice, equality and social cohesion, and to make us all, rich and poor, play by the same set of rules and put our shoulders to the wheel. Those are now, and for a few years yet should be, our most pressing concerns.


However desirable equality and parity between the genders may be, women and men are different. Their differences are a direct result of their distinct roles in human biological and social evolution.

Men and their needless wars have held human civilization back for centuries, although male leaders now appear to be wising up. For some deep, evolutionary reason, neither men nor women trust women to run a war.

But as needless wars wind down, it’s time to give women (besides Angela Merkel) a chance. They could hardly do worse than men, especially Dubya, and history suggests they can do a lot better. Hillary is now the right woman, with the right experience, at the right time.

In any event, as long as her health holds up, she has no real competition. In both experience and judgment, the gap between her and men like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio is an order of magnitude greater than the gap between Obama and her in 2008. Better GOP pols like Christie and Huntsman will have little chance to win (or to be nominated) because they evoke little enthusiasm from the GOP’s active and oddly dominant extremist minority.

So now, at last, is Hillary Clinton’s day. The only things that might stand between her and the presidency are her own stamina and health. Good health, Hillary, and good campaigning!

Coda: Why not start now? Why am I publishing this essay now, three years before the 2016 presidential election? There are three reasons, all of them strong.

First and foremost, we Dems have to get organized. Will Rogers once quipped, “I’m not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”

It’s time for us to shed that image, get organized, and do what we have to do to win, take our country back from clueless extremists, and save it from further decline. That means picking a presidential candidate early and focusing laser-like on her winning and taking the House and Senate with her.

Anointing Hillary early, if only unofficially, might even help us in the upcoming 2014 midterms. Imagine her impact on women’s incentives and enthusiasm to campaign and vote for Democratic candidates for the House and Senate. Hillary could boost Democratic voter participation by several percent.

In some ways, even the mini-civil-war between Hillary and Obama in 2008 served our interests as progressives. Although a fast learner (about everything!) Obama was new to presidential politics and untested. The long, hard campaign against Hillary tempered him and assured his win against an aging but grizzled politician, John McCain.

But we don’t need that testing any more. Hillary has lots of experience in campaigning. She has strong memories of that mini-civil-war, in which she did the best she could against an unusually superior candidate. She’s married to one of the savviest campaigners in modern Democratic history. And elder-statesman Obama, his presidency about to end, would be glad to lend his advice and superb organizational skills.

For the first time in decades, we Dems would be united and organized against a political foe with a catastrophically dangerous extremist wing. With all this talent working for us, it might be like Johnson-Goldwater all over again.

We Dems could do exceedingly well. All we need is enough drama in our convention and campaign to draw and keep the public’s attention. (The GOP will have plenty of drama, nearly all of it destructive to party unity and general-election success.)

Joe Biden, a good and smart man but not a particularly brilliant speaker or campaigner, will be nearly 73 at the end of the 2016 campaign. He could provide that interest by making what ultimately would prove a token run. He then could take a high position in the third Clinton Administration and serve as long as he liked (and as his health held out).

Second, if we play our cards right, the general election might be a cake walk and a chance to talk about policy, for a change. Under any now-foreseeable circumstances, Hillary’s chances of winning will be so strong, and the GOP so divided, that some of the best qualified GOP candidates may decline to run. Even Christie might. Or he might just sensibly consider his first run a trial run, prepping for some future time when his party had shucked its extremism.

Finally, we Dems have two extraordinary new senators with great potential and (in different ways) great charisma: Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren. Both need seasoning for national office. For the next three years, and especially in 2016 and after, we must introduce them to the entire nation, strengthen their national name recognition, groom them for higher office, and give them experience in foreign and military affairs, which both lack. (Former Republican Senator Richard Lugar, now a casualty of Tea-Party extremism, did just so with a young Senator Obama. [search for “chief mentors”] Can you imagine any Tea Party member, such as Ted Cruz, doing anything similar today?) We ought to consider co-keynote speeches at our 2016 convention and give each of our two new, charismatic senators plenty of time to prepare.

In any event, we Dems should take a page from the Chinese, whose leaders serve five years or more on the top ruling committee before assuming the top jobs. Hillary will be 69 in 2016 and might not serve more than one term. So we must act fast and nurture our “comers” as never before.

If we do these things, we can take the White House and maybe keep it for a generation, as long as Hillary’s health holds up for the campaign and at least one term as president. Our party and our country deserve a long-range plan, something besides the selfishness that the GOP has preached with such political effectiveness—and such economic disaster—for the last thirty years.

With Hillary’s strong position and the GOP’s current disarray, we Dems have a good chance to prove Will Rogers wrong. Let’s take that chance and get to work right away.

Footnote 1: I sometimes call Secretary Clinton by her first name, “Hillary.” In doing so I mean no disrespect. Nor do I have particular affection for her. I use her first name only for style and clarity. I always try to choose the shorter word or shorter sentence to make a point, and using “Hillary,” rather than “Clinton,” distinguishes her from Bill.

Footnote 2: These facts will not be lost on savvy Republican strategists. So it is not impossible that we will have two female candidates for president in 2016.

There are, however, several obstacles. First, the GOP will have to find a qualified woman with more experience, brains and judgment than Sarah Palin—far more. Second, there is no one in the GOP with anything like Hillary’s name recognition, let alone experience in national campaigns or governing. Third—and most important—what makes women women and could make them better leaders than men today does not appeal to much of the GOP, especially its extremists.

The Tea Party and its follow travelers are not big on compromise, pragmatism, flexibility, or empathy. Instead, they prefer selfishness, self-righteousness and genuflection to ideological abstractions—characteristics not usually associated with females.

Getting a good female candidate past the gauntlet of the GOP’s dogmatic extremists will be about as easy as nominating Jon Huntsman, Jr., who will probably still be the best-qualified candidate the GOP could nominate. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for either event.

Anecdote: My 2008 Poll-Worker Experience

During the 2008 general election, I served as a Democratic poll worker—an observer—in a far suburb of Cleveland. (I had already voted early, for Obama.) My job was to advise voters of their rights and watch for and report any possible voter suppression.

The suburban precinct in which I worked was nearly all white. It seemed to be generally well and fairly run. I didn’t see any obvious attempts at voter suppression. I did have the chance to advise one or two voters involved in irregularities (such as trying to vote in the wrong precinct) of their rights.

Toward the end of the day, the GOP workers discovered that the Democrats who had trained me for this work over a week before had failed to get my name on the proper lists. I was ignominiously dismissed.

That was not my finest hour, and it made me think of Will Rogers. But that’s not the point of my story.

As I worked through the day, I noticed something strange. At various times, about a half dozen young white women came to the polls with an odd air of total determination. Head down, speaking to no one, they strode with a sober, purposeful air to the booths, voted and left the same way.

These young women were obviously on a mission. Some may have been voting for the first time. Some may have been voting for the seeming underdog after a dirty, racist campaign. Some may have been utterly disgusted at Dubya’s misrule and hell bent on a change in the ruling party.

I couldn’t ask any of them. That sort of contact by poll workers is strictly forbidden. My imagination went crazy, but I had no idea what was going on. I only had a vague sense that all this determination was good for Obama.

So I was not surprised when I enquired the next day. This lily-white Ohio precinct, in which I saw maybe half a dozen non-white voters while I worked, went for Obama by the same percentage that the nation did.

I then wondered—and still do today—whether these and other young white women would be even more determined in voting, at last, for one of their own gender.


As most readers of this blog know, antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” are winning the war against us humans. They killed 23,000 people last year.

The main reason they exist and are winning is our food industry. It gives antibiotics routinely to millions of healthy animals in their feed. So all the bugs that those millions of animals harbor, and which can infect us, are evolving antibiotic resistance, as you read this.

Our medical profession is slowly wising up. In two recent surgeries, I got no antibiotics at all. The docs used antiseptics instead. (These are chemicals that kill the bugs but are so strong they could also kill us if taken internally. Docs use them on our skin, bandages, instruments and equipment, but don’t give them to us internally.)

I didn’t complain because: (1) I got my surgery at elite medical institutions, including the Cleveland Clinic, which know what they are doing, and (2) as a scientist, I know how quickly bacteria can become superbugs. Bacteria reproduce every few minutes, about 3.5 million times faster than we do. So they evolve much faster.

For example, suppose a random genetic mutation makes a normal bug a superbug. If it divides every five minutes, it can become 4,096 superbugs in an hour, or 68.7 billion in a day. Superbugs don’t multiply quite this fast in our and animals’ bodies, but they easily outcompete normal bugs, which antibiotics kill off. That’s why superbugs are so dangerous: they can kick our medicine back to the nineteenth century, before the discovery of antibiotics, when kids regularly died of such things as scarlet fever, and life expectancy was much shorter.

Medical doctors can’t stop the onslaught of superbugs alone. The food industry has to cooperate. Unfortunately, it isn’t. And it won’t without federal regulation.

Consumers Union is one of the few organizations that has lobbyists to face down the food industry’s armies of lobbyists and lawyers. It thinks it has a chance to push for sensible regulation that could save you, your children or grandchildren from a superbug.

CU is mounting a political push right now. Please click here and give its effort just five minutes of your attention. The life you help save could be your own.