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

05 June 2014

Potatoes and Birds


Potatoes and birds both live. But what a difference!

Potatoes are amorphous, bulgy, even ugly. They live underground. They’re inert. They don’t do much of anything. They just sit there and grow.

It’s not that potatoes are bad. They can keep you alive for a long time, without any other food. Wash their skins, but don’t peel them, and you’ve got a lot of vitamins and minerals, too.

But don’t expect change or novelty from a potato. What you see is always what you get. A potato never surprises.

Birds are as different as different can be. They live in the air. They soar. They swoop and dive. They dart. With their light and agile bodies, they can change direction in an instant. They can dance in the air, the better to catch and eat a bug you can’t even see.

We humans have always admired birds. That’s not just because they can fly and we can’t, at least not without the aid of enormous mechanical contraptions. They are they epitome of flexibility and adaptability. They can move and change direction more quickly and easily than anything on land or in the air.

Unfortunately, most people are potatoes. They think and do the same things from day to day and year to year. They don’t change. Their ideas don’t change. They go to their graves thinking and doing the exact same things—harboring the exact same prejudices and making the same horrible mistakes—as they have all their lives.

Dubya is a potato. As president, he was well-meaning. But he personified the old saw that good intentions pave the road to Hell. He had all the intelligence of a potato, in both senses of that word.

Among many other things, he started two unnecessary wars, one of which is still killing our troops. He did so just to do what we now see, in retrospect, we could have done better and faster with ninjas and drones, at a tiny fraction of the cost in blood and treasure.

Dubya’s being a potato was unfortunate, and not just because of its immediate consequences. It was unfortunate because every dramatic improvement in the human condition has been made by a bird. Dubya had no chance to do that—none at all—because he’s a potato.

For all his faults—and they were many—Richard Nixon was a bird. He went to China. After using Communism and “Red” China as punching bags to win elections for his entire career, he grabbed Henry Kissinger, got on a plane and flew to Bejing. The result, some forty years later, is the world’s most important bilateral relationship and the world’s second largest economy.

Some day soon China will displace us as number one, at least in economic clout. But its relationship with us will remain mostly cooperative, thanks to Nixon and Kissinger. Their going to China in the middle of the Cold War was a big, birdlike aerial pivot.

Jack Kennedy was also a bird. His CIA and military advisers inveigled him into the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, a horrendous mistake. Like some kind of movie monster, that blunder morphed into the Cuban Missile Crisis, which nearly extinguished our species.

But Kennedy pivoted, birdlike, ignoring the advice of his bellicose advisers (with only his trusted brother Bobby dissenting). He got Nikita Khrushchev on the phone, and the two men—both birds—negotiated a way out of species self-extinction. Another Russian bird, then unknown, avoided accidental Armageddon by refusing to let his Soviet nuclear torpedoes fly. His name was Arkady Aleksandrovich Arkhipov. (Remember that name well; if you are alive today, you probably owe your life to him.)

FDR was a bird, too. He was born into one of the richest families in the United States. Yet he championed ordinary people when their backs were to the wall. His upper classmates called him “a traitor to his class,” and plutocrats still revile his memory. But his aerial acrobatics in the New Deal and the horrible war that followed saved capitalism from itself and made our nation, for a time, the strongest, richest and happiest on Earth.

Lincoln’s birdness saved our nation in another way. At the outset, he was a passive racist. Slavery was just another political issue for him. Like most Americans at the time, he believed that the black races, which are 98% identical to the rest of us, were inferior. But under the pressure of the Civil War and possible dissolution of our nascent nation, he changed direction. He became The Great Emancipator.

These are just a few examples from our own Yankee history. But all of the great advances in our entire species’ history came from birds, not potatoes. Potatoes can nurture us—including our predilections and prejudices—but they can’t advance us or save us from real dangers. Only birds can.

Potatoes can’t avoid a trap or seize an opportunity because they can’t change change direction. They have no direction. They can’t even plod. They just sit and grow.

Our current President is a bird. He changed our oppressive and dysfunctional health-insurance system after others had failed for an entire century. That took some aerial acrobatics, still ongoing. It also took incredible perseverance, through one of the best-funded and most relentless propaganda campaigns in human history.

He also got us out of one of the two unnecessary wars that Dubya started, and he’s about to get us out of the other. As befits avian flexibility, he wants to leave some of our troops in Afghanistan, to protect our modest gains there. It looks as if whoever wins the Afghan presidential elections will let him.

Now he’s using his executive powers to do his best to reduce the acceleration of carbon emissions, atrocious pollution, and global warming, which the potatoes can’t see. How could they? They live in their own little worlds, underground.

But the President has only 2.5 years to go before the next presidential election, when he becomes another kind of bird: a lame duck. In some ways, he’s been a lame duck for his entire time in office. That’s due to the adamant opposition of potatoes—millions of them—many of whom can’t see much beyond the color of his skin.

For about twenty years, the GOP has been mostly a sack of potatoes. No ideas at all, let alone new ones. No change. Nothing new at all, except for new words for the same old propaganda, such as “job-killing taxes.” Its “base” is even more potato-like: the aging couch potatoes glued to Fox all day.

The only thing birdlike in the GOP recently has been the Tea Party, which put the party in a suicidal avian dive straight toward the ground. Obsessing about debt is nothing new to the GOP. It used to be a classic trait of so-called “establishment” Republicans, at least until Reagan busted the budget and, in the immortal words of great thinker Dick Cheney, “proved deficits don’t matter.”

The “establishment” potatoes don’t like the return to extreme orthodoxy at all. The Kochs and other potato plutocrats are in the processing of crushing the Tea Party with their money and their media clout. The primaries just concluded showed their might. Likely even Thad Cochran won’t survive. And so we have the triumph of one strain of potatoes over another.

But the winning potatoes are potatoes just the same. They, too, have no new ideas. Just keep taxes low, regulations weak, and regulators starved for money and power. Then keep the hoi palloi fired up with abortion, religion, and endless “scandals” and the ruling plutocrats rich, lightly taxed, and happy. The whole potato clan—at least the ones at the top, who matter—will wax fat, underground, where their potato eyes can’t see.

Yet birds are not entirely extinct, maybe even among the GOP. So it’s worth a bit of thought to identify them. Our nation’s future may depend on them. Certainly the GOP’s will.

Is Sarah Palin a bird? At first, she seemed so. No doubt she was a novelty, especially in a party whose male potatoes mostly see women the same way the Nazis did: limited to kinder (wanted or not!), kirche, und kuchen.

(Isn’t it funny how societies and movements that marginalize women always seem to be dangerous to everyone, from the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese war machine down to the Islamic extremists today? Just on general principles, dissing half your own species doesn’t seem such a good idea. Even potatoes wouldn’t do that!)

But Palin’s ideas, too, were the same old GOP line, on taxes, regulation, abortion and immigration. She’s just a potato with an attitude. So are Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Mike Huckabee.

Is Chris Christy a bird? The deeper investigators dig into his political history in New Jersey, the more he seems like a garden-variety potato of the mob variety—a Mafioso potato with a seemingly Anglo-Saxon name. He embraced the President, kissing up, while his minions closed the bridge onramp, stomping down. Leaders of potato gangs have been doing that since the dawn of potato civilization.

Is Jeb Bush a bird? Maybe, but it’s hard to see how. He does seems a moderate, and he knows how not to offend voters. (English nobility once defined a gentleman as someone who gives no offense unintentionally.) But can he twist, soar and dive? Does he have any minimally new or original ideas? Only time will tell.

Maybe Jeb’s never had the chance or a good reason to be a bird. But it seems just as likely that he’s a mere a potato with a bit more intelligence and diplomatic skill than the average spud.

So who’s left? What about Rand Paul? He just broke ranks with much of his party, and with the Fox couch potatoes, by opposing vote suppression with voter-ID laws. He bears watching, for he might be a bird.

For most of us, his move is obvious. “Voter fraud” in this nation is way down below the 0.1% level. The average accountant not only wouldn’t consider it material; she might not even notice it. But ID laws disenfranchise minorities and poor people, many more of whom don’t own cars, don’t drive, and consequently don’t have drivers’ licenses. The statistics on this are absolutely solid.

Rand Paul’s reason for breaking ranks is indicative. He’s not worried about disenfranchising people, just “offending” them. What he means is that he’d like to disenfranchise those who would vote for Democrats without offending those who might vote for Republicans.

Is this a bird swoop or a potato’s primitive cognition? Does Rand have a spark of bird in him, or is he (to drop the bio-metaphors) just a loose cannon? A lot depends on the answer.

Things aren’t any better in the House. John Boehner the über-potato is still in charge there. He even looks like a potato, at least in the face. (Christie looks more like one in the body.) Boehner’s perpetual beetle-browed scowl would make a great Potato Head doll.

Compared to Ted Cruz and the worst of the Tea Party, Boehner can seem reasonable. But there is no birdlike spark in just rejecting extremes. Anyway, he takes his cues straight from the plutocrat potatoes; you can almost see the ring in his nose and the golden chain leading to the money pots.

Boehner did have one little birdlike twitch early this year. It happened when the Tea Party was ready to flirt with national default yet again. He told his party members that it’s better to win than to lose, and make people very angry, for “principle.”

So for now, in the words of Looney Tunes, that’s all, folks. The potatoes still rule the GOP. If potatoes could march, they would be in lockstep. But the GOP doesn’t march because spuds don’t walk. They respond to challenges and problems by doing what they’ve always done or always advocated: cutting taxes and regulations and giving the rich more power.

The GOP birds, if any there be, are staying in their nests. At a time when the party’s money-bag potatoes are crushing its suicidal birds, nests seem like good places to stay.

But if the GOP ever wants to win a presidential campaign again, it’s going to have to nurture some birds, as hard as that may be for spuds. Cloning birds from potatoes is not something even the genetic engineers have yet figured out how to do.

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