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

07 March 2016

The Dems’ March 6 Debate

[For a recent post on how the GOP establishment created the Trump monster, click here.]

Like the most recent GOP debate—in which the candidates acted like randy teenagers—the Dems’ debate wasn’t much worth watching. It had plenty of substance and plenty of discussion. But it just didn’t teach me much new.

Some of the questions were new and well put—especially ones by African-Americans about institutional racism. But even they didn’t tell me much that I didn’t already know. Both Bernie and Hillary have imagination and empathy, and both are just as horrified by the recently-revealed depths of our nation’s institutional racism as I am.

Nevertheless, the Dems’ last debate did do something useful. If only by repetition and confirmation, it crystallized differences in the candidates’ approaches to issues, modes of thought, and character.

For the nth time, Hillary proved herself a list-maker. She doesn’t focus; she makes lists.

Notwithstanding her graduation from Yale Law School—our nation’s most exclusive—she apparently never learned what most law schools teach. They teach students to “go for the jugular,” i.e., to hit the main, “killer” point first and often in argument.

Hillary doesn’t do that. She’ll give you a list of five or more things to do, but she doesn’t prioritize them. She’ll say she has a “comprehensive plan” without ever revealing its gist.

So you come away from listening to her with two unresolved hypotheses. Does she value flexibility above all? Does she absolutely refuse to commit herself to anything? Or does she simply lack the intelligence to distinguish the vital from the mundane?

Not surprisingly, Hillary accuses Bernie of being a one-trick pony. He always, she says, comes back to our extreme economic inequality.

But it’s not really that simple, is it? If it were simply a matter of some people being obscenely rich, while many others are poor, maybe we wouldn’t be in such bad shape. England was like that in Dickens’ time, and England got through it.

But, as Bernie says, that’s not the whole problem. The problem is that the obscenely rich are in full control, and their control is hardening into a kind of iron oligarchy. That oligarchy is displacing our democracy.

The TPP’s negotiators, for example, were representatives of multinational corporations only, and they negotiated in secret. No one from labor or consumers sat in. How else could the agreement have contained the noxious “pay for rules” provision?

Not only that. Our new Yankee oligarchs have none of the sense of “noblesse oblige” of England’s upper class in Dickens’ day.

Instead, they have a sense of entitlement and self-righteousness that can make them (mostly unintentionally) cruel and brutal. Didn’t their moving US production abroad, although killing workers’ wages, give workers cheap Chinese products to buy at Walmart? Didn’t they “increase shareholder value”? Didn’t Ayn Rand and Ronald Reagan teach us that selfishness is the human drive that makes us all better off?

No, the “upper class” in Dickens’ time was not at all like ours. They built orphanages and poor houses for the “lower classes.” Our elite just want the homeless out of town, or warehoused in jails. And our elite have a theory—an ideology—that doesn’t just make their greed permissible; it glorifies it.

Dickens’ elite had something quite different. They had Christianity. Recently Pope Francis had to remind us what it was.

So when Bernie harps on economic inequality, it’s not just one thing. It’s many. But they all stem from that single unfortunate fact.

The rich can control politics (we think so now; we hope we are wrong) because they have all the money and our Supreme Court lets them use it to delude and control us. They don’t care about the poor, workers’ comfort or health care, foreign wars (that don’t affect their businesses), racism so bad that it kills people, or water contaminated with lead. All they care about is their profits, their business empires, and “shareholder value.”

So Bernie’s not really such a one-trick pony after all. He understands that most, if not all, of the evils of our society come from our gross economic inequality, its practical consequences, and the ideology that feeds it. It’s the prime cause; all else is effect.

Unfortunately, Bernie missed a big chance to explain all this. Toward the end of the debate, an earnestly spiritual lady asked both candidates about God, and Bernie about his Jewish heritage.

To his credit, Bernie was forthright about his Judaism. But he said something that I, as a Jew myself, always find puzzling. He told the story of family members who perished in the Holocaust. Then he expressed his Jewish pride. Why should persecution make you proud? Survival maybe. But persecution?

Every Jew has a much better reason for being proud. It’s a basic philosophy that goes by the Hebrew name of tikkun olam, which means “repair the world.” Every Jew has the goal and obligation of making the world a better place—whether as doctor, lawyer, pol, truck driver or haberdasher.

Unlike the ancient Mayans, we Jews do not believe that the world goes in cycles and self-destructs every few millennia. We believe in progress and the obligation of every human being to promote it. Maybe that’s why so many Jews are progressives. (According to polls, about 70% of us vote Democratic.)

When the engine of your car has fallen out of its moorings, and the still-whirling fan blade is digging a deep hole in the ground toward China, there may be other things wrong, too. But making a list of those other things won’t help you get the car back on the road. You have to fix the main problem. A good mechanic should do that.

Motivated by selfishness, profit and “shareholder value,” our modern elite have become that wayward engine. They have shipped our industries, our production, and our jobs overseas. Our innovation, education, creativity, contact with customers and reality-focused common sense will follow. Even in the medium term, none of this will be good for our economy, our military power, or our self-respect as a people.

If our next president is to “repair the world,” starting with America, she or he must understand this. The job is to stop the engine digging deeper and get it back where it belongs. Worrying about the brakes, the transmission, or the dented fenders won’t help much.

That’s why Bernie, who understands priority and cause and effect, should be our next president. And that’s why Hillary’s list making and “comprehensive plans” simply won’t cut it.

But don’t worry. If Hillary wins the nomination, she will have my support. At least she recognizes what the problems are, if not their causes or how to fix them.

In contrast, the Republican candidates believe that, if we just keep following their ideological Little Red Book, if we keep making the rich richer and keep letting that engine dig itself in deeper, all will be well. If you believe that, you probably think that securitizing liar’s loans and invading Iraq were good ideas, too.



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