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

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.

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