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

27 February 2016

Bernie and “Black” Votes

Bernie, they say, needs “black” votes to win, as if votes have color. But it’s true. That truth is as much fortuitous as a reflection of our tortured racial history.

The main reason is that the South bats next. “Super Tuesday’s” primaries involve a lot of big Southern states, including Texas, our second largest state by population. And despite all the horror and terror the South has visited on African-Americans over four centuries, the proportion of them who live in the South is greater than anywhere else. In South Carolina, which votes today, over half of likely Democratic primary voters are African-American.

So so-called “black” votes may determine the direction of the Dems’ primary election. They may even pick the nominee.

Hillary, they say, has them in her pocket. She poses with African-American women for photos, everyone showing a beautiful smile. She wraps herself in the presidency of Barack Obama as if it were our flag. She wants to be African-Americans’ “friend.”

But, like everyone else, African-Americans don’t just need friends. They need allies. Friends can be fickle. They can throw you under the bus, just as Hillary and Bill did, in desperation, playing all the usual tricks of guilt by association against Obama in the primary campaign of 2007-2008.

No, I don’t believe Hillary or Bill is a racist. Not one bit. But they threw their principles of racial equality under the bus in trying to beat Obama to the nomination in 2007. That’s what “friends” can do when the chips are down.

Unlike Hillary, Bernie is a man of principle. He’s more of an intellectual and a wonk. So he may not seem so warm and fuzzy.

But allies are different from friends. They fight for you not out of transient sympathy, but from their core principles.

Bernie has strong core principles, as everyone who’s heard him speak knows. He’s not going to let the plutocrats take African-Americans‘ jobs away, any more than he’s going to let them take jobs away from anyone else. He’s going to fight tooth and nail for subsidized education for African-Americans because they need it even more than whites. He’s going to sympathize with “blacks” because, unfortunately, they are the canaries in our American coal mine. Almost everything that is happening to them today will begin happening to the rest of us, eventually, if our strong trend toward oligarchy and bossism continues. Bernie understands this.

When Bernie complained that a US Senator should be able to criticize even a good president when he disagrees, he may have sounded petulant. But he was right.

I think Obama already has been our best president since JFK, maybe since FDR. I’ve written a whole essay to say why.

But I’ve also disagreed with him at times. I disagreed with his decision not to take public financing for his first campaign. I disagreed strongly with him on allowing the Bush Tax Cuts for the wealthy to continue. I disagreed with his decision to try Khaled Sheikh Mohammed in secret military tribunals, rather than open civilian courts in New York City, the center of his attack. (I thought AG Eric Holder was right.) I disagreed with Obama’s early reliance on coal as a significant energy source, which he has now abandoned.

I was wrong on the first point (campaign financing), but I think I was right on the others. That doesn’t decrease my admiration for President Obama. I know he was not just right, but also effective, on so many things that matter, in spite of the most mindless and relentless opposition against any president that I’ve seen in my 70 years.

But that’s the point. Obama has been and is a man of principle. He’ll bend his principles for the sake of expediency once in a while. Any pol must do that to be effective.

For example, he let us know in May 2007 that he favored single-payer health insurance but thought it politically unattainable. You have to respect that kind of political judgment, especially from a half-“black” man who was smart enough to get elected by clear popular majorities, twice, in a still consummately racist nation.

But I didn’t vote for Obama twice because he was my “friend,” or because he “friended” (a horrible new verb from Facebook) some group of which I was a part. I voted for him because he was the smartest and best candidate, and because the policies he espoused made sense to me.

If African-Americans assess Bernie like that, they will see that he’s their man. He may not profess to be their “friend,” but he will be their strongest ally. He knows what has brought this country low, what has killed the American Dream, and what has made African-Americans the most oppressed of a much-abused people. And he knows how to fix it, beginning with breaking up the big banks and making higher education free to all, so that everyone with talent, including those with dark skin, can take their talent as far as it will go.

He knows that African-Americans have been victims of oppression far more than the rest of us, but he also knows that their trials won’t end until we can change the whole rotten system. He knows that the oligarchs, while not really racists themselves, have consistently used racism to divide and conquer us all, and to maintain their undeserved and unelected power.

If African-Americans realize that they need allies, not just “friends,” and that Bernie is their man, things may really start to change. Real change will not come from glad-handing or politics as usual, or from any “establishment.” The reason why we are all in such a mess is that our “establishment” is bent, and out for itself alone.

Footnote: You might wonder why I respect the President’s decision that single-payer was politically unattainable yet also support Bernie, who’s for single-payer. The President made his political judgment in 2007. If Bernie wins, he’ll take office in 2017, a decade later. More important, so-called “Obamacare,” which we now have, may be the best we can do short of single-payer. The next step is to expand Medicare, first to all the middle-aged but under-65 people who lost their jobs and their homes and are now living shorter lives, and then to the population generally. Obamacare was a big step forward, but we have to keep pushing until we get the same guarantee of adequate health insurance that virtually every other advanced nation enjoys.


23 February 2016

Bland v. Bland?

Politics today has some big ironies. On both sides of the aisle, there is more money than ever before. Yet on both sides popular insurgencies not seen since Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party are making waves that threaten to capsize the “establishment.” Who would have predicted, as late as six months ago, that either Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders would have a real shot at a major-party nomination?

A second big irony lies on the GOP side. Since losing to Obama in 2008, the GOP has had a plan. I’ve called it the “Chutzpah Campaign.” Its scheme was simple but diabolical: blame on Obama all the ills that Dubya and GOP orthodoxy had caused and later would cause.

Never mind logic, thought GOP leaders. Never mind history. In our Twitter age, voters have the attention spans of gnats.

Stick to GOP orthodoxy like glue and blame all the sad consequences on Obama. It’s too late to change course, and anyway the Koch Brothers and our other rich puppet masters won’t let us. If we get more practical and reasonable, our torrent of money will dry up. A fervent blame game just might work. After all, Obama’s half-black in a still wholly racist nation, and he never raises his voice.

The blame game worked far better than any rational person could have expected. There are, apparently, a lot of voters who think it would be better to have over twelve million American with no health insurance, pre-existing-condition exclusions for the rest of us, and simultaneous robust, ongoing “forever” wars in up to four countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and even Ukraine.

But the blame game had a big unintended consequence. (Most big lies do.) Trust in the GOP and its leaders fell through the floor. Public approval of the GOP in Congress, where it has ruled with scorched-earth obstruction, has been in the teens in percent for over two years.

So now comes Donald Trump. He’s the ultimate loose cannon—an undisciplined and ungovernable mouth.

But Trump tells the truth in things that matter most. Dubya did fail to keep us safe on 9/11. An intelligence memo warning of a big attack by Al Qaeda lay ignored on Condalleeza Rice’s desk. Dubya did make a catastrophic blunder in invading and occupying Iraq. Its consequences today are IS, a devastated Syria, the EU’s refugee crisis, and an Iraq half-owned by Iran. Perhaps the word “lie” was an exaggeration—a phenomenon not unknown to Trump. But the gist was rare truth in a sea of lies.

The biggest inconvenient truth that the insurgent has trumpeted is the most potent politically. The GOP’s scheme of extreme free trade and moving production, money and employment abroad has not worked for ordinary working Americans. It has made them poorer, more unemployed and underemployed, more insecure, and angrier. Now even Jeb!—who never needed the exclamation point until Trump came along—understands that.

Truth will out. The loose lips that have sunk the Republican establishment have done so for that simple reason. The rank and file may still despise Obama as programmed, but they know, deep down, that something is seriously wrong. They know they have been lied to and used, big time. Some of them may yet become Dems.

Still we are not done with ironies. There may be one more—a big one—in store for us. It’s entirely possible that the establishments on both sides might ultimately win, producing bland presidential candidates in a season of bomb-throwers. Here’s how this might happen.

On the GOP side, the race has just narrowed to three with blinding speed: Trump, Rubio and Cruz. (Kasich is self-evidently expanding his name recognition for a vice-presidential post or future run. He’s the GOP counterpart of Martin O’Malley.) For many reasons, the GOP’s establishment and rich backers hate Trump. Perhaps the most important is that their income depends in large measure on the last point of orthodoxy that Trump has debunked.

But the GOP establishment will never go for Cruz. He’s too much of a loner and obvious demagogue. More important, he represents the hard social and religious right, which has never been more than a distraction and an annoyance for the plutocrats. What the GOP establishment wants is more money and power at the top. That means lower taxes, less regulation, more monied control of politics, and fewer revival meetings.

So Cruz will just not do. He’s almost as much of a loose cannon as Trump, just a bit more articulate. And anyway, anyone who’s ever known Cruz personally hates him.

So if the GOP establishment has anything to say about it, the GOP nominee will be Rubio. He’s clean-cut. He’s clean-mouthed. He doesn’t trumpet inconvenient truths but sticks to GOP orthodoxy like glue. And he just might bring a few much-needed Hispanic votes to the Party of Plutocrats. If it takes a brokered convention and semi-legal machinations behind the scenes, the GOP establishment will pick Rubio.

Much the same thing might happen on the Dems’ side. Like the GOP establishment, the Dems’ establishment hates wild cards and insurgents. Having bought the GOP’s own decades-long propaganda, it views Bernie’s mild, European-style democratic socialism as utterly unattainable in the US. Never mind that parts or all of it exist and work well in Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and other nations of the EU.

Yet Bernie is not the only wild card on the Democratic side. There’s also gender. Will women vote their gender more than their economics? Will they confuse the two? In either case, Hillary will have the advantage of backing by a “minority group” that is in fact a majority of our population and of voters. No candidate in our history has ever had that kind of advantage before.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still for Bernie, and I’m still contributing. And my success in prediction is less than perfect. I was one of the many who thought Jeb was a shoo-in on the GOP side, at least before he had to tack the exclamation point on.

But a possible outcome of this tumultuous primary season is becoming more likely daily. Despite the insurgencies on both sides, we well may have bland v. bland come fall. A female list-maker and triangulator with some executive experience might face a bland political ingenue and weathervane with no executive experience whatsoever, but a bright mind and a strong bias against offense. Whoever won, political correctness and moderation would prevail over revolution.

This may not be the worst possible outcome. After all, the nation is still split down the middle. The worst political polarization since our Civil War and Vietnam will not resolve itself overnight.

Yet our candidates on both sides might be political automatons—robots programmed to avoid offense and triangulate on everything that comes their way. What they really think, their core beliefs (if they have any) and what they would do in a crisis will remain up for grabs until a crisis occurs on their watch.

Why do I think so? A striking image on each side remains fixed in my mind. For Rubio, it’s his slipping—three times!—into a self-evidently pre-programmed and half-hearted diatribe against Obama when attacked in debate on his personal history and his views on real things. For Hillary, it was a little-noticed but similar incident in a 2007 debate. Asked about driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, she waffled, flip-flopped and simply froze on camera.

In each case, the two candidates of bland perhaps gave a preview of what they might do as “deciders.” Like programmed triangulating machines whose programming is inadequate, they sputtered, muttered and grew silent.

How will our species fare when the “leader” of our most powerful nation is a programmed automaton like that? Unfortunately, we may yet have the chance to find out.


20 February 2016

Nilhil nisi bonum (mi primero aporte en Español)

[To salute the importance of the Latino vote in Nevada and beyond, I’m publishing my first post in Spanish. Thanks are due to Pilar Valenti, my conversational spanish teacher, who corrected a draft, and to maestro Fernando Mayans at SFCC, who brought me to the level where I could even think of trying to write in Spanish. All errors, of course, are mine.]

El Hombre en Negro

Estoy pensando en un hombre que, en mi mente, siempre apareció de negro. Su pelo era negro. El siempre vestía de negro en las actividades oficiales. Solamente su rostro era mas claro que negro. Causaba la misma impresión que Darth Vader, el villano de la serie de películas “La Guerra de las Galaxias.”

Como Darth Vader, el era un hombre de gran habilidad. De hecho su habilidad a menudo parecía sobrenatural. El podía decir o escribir palabras severas sobre otros, pero todos lo consideraban un genio. Acusaba a los demás de una forma de “activismo” inadmisible, pero el hábilmente ocultaba su propio activismo. Sus compañeros de trabajo apreciaban su encanto y sentido del humor, aun cuando estaban en desacuerdo con él.

Era un hombre muy religioso. Insistía que su religión nunca afectaba sus opiniones, pero lo que el escribía casi siempre pretendía resultados consecuentes con los que dictaba su religion. ¿Era eso solamente una coincidencia?

El creía con entusiasmo en el pasado. Decía que nosotros deberíamos resolver los problemas de hoy como los hubieran resuelto quienes escribieron y pensaron hace más de dos siglos. Odiaba a los Talibanes y a los terroristas musulmanes, pero nunca explicó de que forma su manera de pensar difería de la que los Talibanes usan para interpretar el Corán.

Se dice de él que fue un gran hombre. Se dice que su pensamiento ha cambiado mucho el modo en que nosotros pensamos y vivimos. De acuerdo con el dicho antiguo en Latino, “de mortuis, nihil nisi bonum,” nada se dice de él que pudiera parecer malo.

¿Quién es este hombre en negro, y que influencia el tendrá sobre nosotros y sobre nuestra sociedad en los siglos venideros?

Errata: De acuerdo con unas sugestiones de mi maestro, he hecho algunos cambios para mejorar el Español sin cambiar el sentido. permalink

13 February 2016

Martin and Bernie

[For comment on female leaders and the GOP’s South Carolina debate, click here. For a recent post on the Dems’ post-New Hampshire debate and its significance, click here.]

Our recent holiday in honor of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., came and went with mostly ritual observance. For many of us, Martin has become a plaster statue on a pedestal, a figure of the past, whose struggles are over.

Yet Martin was far from static. His restless, probing mind was constantly re-evaluating the state of the world, and of America, and the threads of cause and effect. A year before he was martyred, he gave a speech entitled “A Time to Break Silence.” In that 1967 speech, he came out, for the first time ever, against the War in Vietnam.

Today we have waged three major needless wars: in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. We are war weary, despite the fact that 99% of us bear no burden, except taxes, from today’s two needless wars. No one wants to send more combat troops to Iraq or Syria, just a few special forces.

So it’s hard to imagine the moral courage that Dr. King required to make his first antiwar speech half a century ago. When he made it, the antiwar movement was just beginning. It was almost entirely a movement of students, who didn’t want to be drafted to fight a useless war, and professors, who almost alone could see how wrong-headed it was. The vast majority of Americans supported the war out of ignorance and blind patriotism.

After Dr. King made his 1967 speech, they turned against him. So did many of his own supporters. They argued against “wasting” precious political capital that should have been spent in the struggle for racial equality, then just beginning to achieve some success.

But Dr. King was not just a peaceful revolutionary. He was a also a great thinker. He saw webs of cause and effect that few others could see, especially at that time. He saw that needless wars, economic inequality, and racial injustice are all interrelated as cause and effect. And with perhaps impolitic honesty, he told it like it was.

Here’s what he said:
“A few years ago there was a shining moment in [our] struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor—both black and white—through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war . . .”
Just as clearly, Dr. King saw that Christian charity is not enough to produce an economically and morally just society: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.”

Having seen and said these things, what would Dr. King have said about our 2016 presidential campaign? Would he have been eager to escalate our role in the struggle against IS—a struggle that, as our President says, is a struggle among Muslims for the heart of Islam? Or would he be eager to continue his lifelong struggle for racial justice and economic equality?

Would he recognize that, today, young African-American males, among whom unemployment in some cities exceeds 50%, are the canaries in our coal mine, feeling the brunt of the toxic gas of oligarchy as it permeates our nation? Would he see the brutal, unrestrained behavior of over-militarized police as a symptom, not a cause, of our vast and growing economic and social inequality?

By and large, police don’t beat up or kill equal citizens of an egalitarian society, let alone the rich. They are beating and killing powerless African-Americans as practice for the rest of us, when inequality and injustice become rampant and the dam of civility holding back popular resentment cracks.

Dr. King was a revolutionary, a peaceful, nonviolent revolutionary of the stature of Gandhi and Mandela. Like Bernie today, he knew that only a revolution of values can put us Yanks on the right path. His shifting of focus from a revolution in racial justice to a revolution in foreign and military policy and in economic equality may have been partly responsible for his assassination in 1968.

Today, we have two views of America. Hillary thinks we need (or can have) only incremental change, more business as usual. Bernie tells us, as Martin did almost half a century ago, that only a peaceful political revolution will do the job.

Our youth appear to agree with Bernie. In the New Hampshire primary, about 85% of them voted for him—an extraordinary Millennial landslide.

So what’ll it be? Hillary’s brand of triangulation and incrementalism? Her claim to competence, the like of which lost John Kerry the White House in 2004, against a man who may have been the worst president in American history? Or will people who haven’t voted before see, with Bernie, that “enough is enough”? Will they register and vote to complete the peaceful revolution that Martin called for nearly 50 years ago?

After half a century, the answer is still blowin’ in the wind.

Update: Erica Garner’s Endorsement

Remember Eric Garner, the big but out-of-shape African-American whom New York police killed with a choke hold for allegedly selling cigarettes illegally? Two days ago, his daughter Erica endorsed Bernie.

She did so for the reasons discussed in this post. But I’m white; Erica is black. My post is theory and sympathy; Erica’s endorsement emerges from practice and unending personal horror. She has had to live with the unspeakable consequences of police brutality—the untimely and unjust death of a beloved father—for nineteen months.

For all that time, she has protested twice a week. For all that time, she has lived the political revolution—the peaceful but relentless activism—that Bernie stands for. Can the rest of us do less?

Female Leaders

Female leaders have a high bar to leap for two reasons. First, there have been so few. Second, the reason why there have been so few is that we humans are primates.

As with most social mammals, our biological evolutionary paradigm of leadership is the alpha male. That’s why an inconsistent, capricious, fear and hate monger like Donald Trump can garner so much inexplicable support. Even in the twenty-first century, some of us instinctively hanker for a strong male leader. It doesn’t much matter what he says or does, as long as he appears to be a “winner” and takes charge.

This feature of our biological evolution is so strong that it has moved us to follow alpha males into the jaws of Hell. Examples are: Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot. Today it has given us Assad, the Kims, Mugabe, and the steady devolution of Putin and Erdogan from ostensible democrats into tyrants. Once an alpha male entrenches himself as leader of a clan, it’s hard to dislodge him, even if the “clan” has members numbering hundreds of millions.

Think I exaggerate? Then watch or re-watch the whole of the GOP South Carolina “debate” Saturday night.

Some interesting practical ideas got mentioned. They included: a flat tax, making the first $36,000 of income tax free, a consumption tax, enticing corporations to bring home foreign cash hoards estimated collectively at $2.5 to $5 trillion dollars, enticing or forcing corporations to bring jobs home, and attracting immigrants we need to do our dirty work fairly, whether with guest-worker programs or a path to permanent residency or citizenship.

But there was no serious discussion of or debate on any of these ideas. They were self-evidently rare sops to the few college-educated viewers who might have thought that a little policy substance in a debate among candidates for the presidency is mandatory.

Instead, the candidates focused on attacking each others’ records, repeating the slams others had made on their rivals, and debating who was a real “conservative.” It was a test of dominance among alpha males, not a discussion of policy. Even the discussion of foreign policy, which may have been the most substantive, became a test of which alpha male could best dominate perceived foreign enemies.

In the test for primate dominance, Trump’s profanity, insults, and claims to be a “winner”—to which he devoted his entire closing statement—served him well. You could almost see the biggest ape showing his teeth, growling, and giving the other contenders roundhouse swipes with his huge paws. So his chances for winning in South Carolina, as he did in New Hampshire, appear good, despite the apparently staged boos in response to some of his wilder remarks.

Our species desperately needs to change this biological evolutionary paradigm. For our modern technology has vastly outpaced our social development. Now we threaten not only our own survival, but the survival of numerous other species that share our small planet.

Nuclear proliferation, unchecked pollution, and global warming are all human phenomena, things we have caused. Any one of them, let alone all together, could take us out. They could take out much of the biosphere with us.

So we humans desperately need the life-giving, life-nurturing and life-preserving instincts—plus the pragmatic wisdom—that biological evolution has assigned primarily to females. We can exploit those instincts with social evolution, which proceeds must faster than biological evolution.

Despite their scarcity, female leaders have been instrumental in our social evolution. Queen Elizabeth I took an island riven by constant male internecine warfare and rife with assassinations among kings, queens and their heirs. She forged the explorational, technological, business-oriented, democratic culture that has now come to dominate the world. Chancellor Angela Merkel has completed the transformation of the last century’s most brutal conqueror into a beacon of progress and humanity at the center of Europe, in energy, immigration, and rational social and economic organization.

Great female leaders like these two have been few and far between. But their contribution to human social evolution has been far out of proportion to their numbers. Think also of Queen Hatchepsut, Golda Meir and Indira Gandhi.

Fighting our biological evolution with social evolution may be the hardest thing we humans ever do. But it’s absolutely necessary. That’s why it’s vital for the first female president of the world’s now-dominant culture to be a stunning and unquestionable success—an Angela Merkel on steroids.

Is Hillary Clinton that female? I think not.

She voted for invading and occupying Iraq. She did so without reading the National Intelligence Estimate, which revealed stark division and dissent inside our own intelligence community. At the time, Hillary was de-facto leader of the Democratic Party and therefore of progressive forces in America. She didn’t read the NIE because she had made her fateful decision purely for domestic political reasons: to prevent the GOP propaganda machine from tarring her as “weak” in foreign affairs. She was trying to outdo the alpha males.

Was that leadership? I think not. Was it helpful? Absolutely not. Just look at Iraq and Syria today.

Bernie is absolutely right to keep mentioning this failing. It was infinitely more consequential than “E-mail-gate.” We had Saddam contained and controlled with a no-fly zone, which we could have tightened like a noose. Our collective blunder in invading and occupying Iraq spawned an ogre: a debacle and quagmire now thirteen years old, with no sign of ending. The ogre’s children are Syria’s utter devastation, the EU’s refugee crisis, and IS.

The decision to invade and occupy Iraq was the second biggest blunder in foreign and military policy in our national history, after Vietnam. As leader of our Yankee progressives, Hillary facilitated it, not as a matter of thoughtful policy, but in a vain attempt to advance her own career. That was a catastrophic blunder in policy, wisdom, perspective, and judgment.

We have a much more promising female waiting in the wings. She’s not as tested or as experienced as Hillary. Not yet. But Elizabeth Warren has all the vital traits that Hillary’s personal story lacks.

Warren has penetrating intelligence that gets to the heart of issues. She doesn’t just make lists. She sets bold goals and priorities and follows through. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) that she created has vastly reduced big banks’ scamming of hapless consumers.

Finance and banking are Warren’s special points of expertise. She has relentlessly pointed the finger at the bankers who caused the Crash of 2008, and she has pursued them with vigor. Like Bernie, she has called repeatedly for breaking up the big banks—the only expedient for preventing the next Crash that has good odds of success.. That’s why her enemies kept Warren from heading the CFPB that she created. That’s why the people of Massachusetts elected her junior senator, to replace the venerable Ted Kennedy.

As someone who worked with Warren briefly, I have followed her political career closely. As far as I know, she has never made any policy decision just to advance her own career, let alone push for war. On the contrary, she told the truth relentlessly at a time when doing so insured her marginalization from executive politics. Then she fought for and won her Massachusetts senate seat with honesty and simplicity as relentless as Bernie’s. Today, she carries the banner of progressivism proudly and unapologetically, as heedless of the enemies she unwittingly makes in so doing as was FDR, who said, “I welcome their hatred.”

Can Warren leap to the level of national executive in four years, when Bernie will be 78? Only time will tell. But one thing is clear right now. If we Yanks want our first female supreme leader to be anything like Queen Elizabeth I or Angela Merkel, we had better look to another Elizabeth and be patient.


12 February 2016

The Dems’ Post-New Hampshire Debate

Have you ever seen an old movie of medieval knights jousting? By the end of it all, they’re exhausted and covered with sweat and blood. They can barely lift their swords or lances.

So it seemed with last night’s Dem debate. Hillary and Bernie both seemed hoarse and exhausted at the outset, more so at the end. Hillary’s ubiquitous smile, sometimes radiantly genuine and sometimes painted on, faded at times. A seventy-year-old myself, I had to admire and envy both candidates’ energy and stamina. After this grueling campaign, which is only just beginning, it’s hard to believe that either candidate lacks the drive to be president.

Notwithstanding their apparent exhaustion, both candidates showed intelligence, knowledge, preparation, leadership and, at times, passion. Both stuck to the issues, except for occasional jabs at each other’s record. Both maintained a high standard of English, complete sentences, and complete thoughts—all of which you might have thought had vanished from the GOP debates, if not from GOP capability.

Who won? In my view, neither did. It depends on what you want in a president.

Both reiterated and entrenched the differences revealed in their pre-New Hampshire debate. Hillary has more experience in foreign affairs—a point that Bernie again acknowledged. Hillary again showed a propensity for making lists of issues, points, and possible solutions. She made lists in response to almost every question. She also made transparent pleas for African-American votes by wrapping herself in the President’s record and the halo of Nelson Mandela.

But presidents don’t make lists of points and options. They have advisors and underlings for that. They make decisions and set priorities. In neither the pre- nor post-New Hampshire debate did Hillary show any propensity or talent for doing so. She always wanted to keep her options open and have it as many ways as she could.

In contrast, Bernie committed himself, time and again, to bold and clear goals and specific methods. He did so with safety nets (expanding Social Security and Medicare), financial reform (breaking up the big banks), mass incarceration and police brutality (local-oriented reform under federal pressure), and of course with campaign finance reform (leading by example). Hillary tried to knock each goal and method down as unrealistic or unachievable. In so doing, she painted herself as the naysayer to Bernie’s visionary.

I hate to say it, because I will support and vote for Hillary, even enthusiastically, if she wins the nomination. But as I listened to her interminable lists, and her touting of half-measures as “experience,” I thought of a Donald. Not that Donald, but the other one: That Idiot Rumsfeld, who quickly won the easy war against Saddam’s reluctant conscript troops and then abysmally lost the hard part, the invasion and long occupation of Iraq. He became the author of a thirteen-year debacle and stalemate still under way.

What came to mind was the infamous memo Rumsfeld wrote just before Dubya fired him as SecDef, when he knew the end of this tenure was near. In it, he laid out all the options and problems, by number, like a twelve-year-old boy saying “See how smart I am? I thought of everything.”

That first Donald may indeed have thought of everything. But almost every key decision he made was wrong. Against the advice of his key generals, he sent too few troops. He had far too many troops and translators searching for non-existent WMDs, when they should have been protecting Iraq’s public patrimony from looting and guarding the huge caches of abandoned ordinance that later became IEDs used to kill our troops. He disbanded the Iraqi Army and the Baath Party, leaving virtually all Iraqis with substantial military-command or administrative experience on the sidelines with no incomee, burning resentment, and nothing to do. And he appointed as his “proconsul” in Iraq a man named Paul Bremer, who had, to put it mildly, insufficient experience with insurgencies, occupations, Iraqi language and culture, and the Middle East generally—and who countermanded the sagest advice of the most experienced diplomats on site.

John Kerry is an admirable man, whose work as Secretary of State has been exemplary, including a shot at denuclearizing Iran. But as a candidate for president in 2004, Kerry waged the very same kind of campaign as Hillary’s today. He claimed greater competence and pre-presidential experience than Dubya; who couldn’t? He pooh-poohed Dubya’s facile dreams of an Iraqi democracy, an easy victory and an “ownership society” in which people who couldn’t pay down loans could buy houses.

Guess who won? Dubya. Why? Americans are not naysayers.

In contrast, Bernie began and ended his discussion of every issue with a big, bold goal and what he would do to achieve it. He made decisions. He set priorities.

Call his goals and methods unrealistic if you will. Hillary did. But isn’t setting clear goals and priorities and making decisions on methods what presidents do? If you think so, then you have to consider that Hillary has virtually conceded the performance argument to Bernie, not in so many words, but by her own arguments.

All she had left was identity politics—a plea to loyalty from women, African-Americans and Hispanics for her and Bill’s consistent past support, except when she and Bill “played the race card” against then-Senator Obama in the bitter 2007 primary campaign. Only the Republican nominee, John McCain, stooped lower; and McCain apologized after he lost.

Loyalty and payback are big in politics. But isn’t that just politics as usual? Aren’t the extremes of loyalty and political retribution, aka vengeance, that we have seen over the last decade or so destroying our nation?

Youth seems to think so. It supports Bernie to the tune of 85%, as shown by post-New Hampshire exit polls. So do geezers like me, who remember what politics were like in our “Golden Age,” when pols of both parties tried to solve problems and even (gasp! shudder!) work together to improve things. You can’t solve problems with half-measures, let alone half-measures as your opening positions in bargaining.

What remains to be seen is how those in the middle, in age and the political spectrum, weigh loyalty, payback and cautious incrementalism against bold idealism and methodological pragmatism. The next primary is in South Carolina, where that contest will appear in sharp relief.


08 February 2016

Building Democracy I: Helping Youth Vote

[For comment on the Dems’ impromptu pre-New Hampshire debate, click here].

The problems of youth in democracies
The promise
The information deficit


From birth, our schools and media teach us Yanks that democracy is the best form of government, and that ours is the best democracy. Never mind whether that is so; there are reasons to doubt both propositions, especially the second. Far more important is global history. A cursory glance at it reveals that democracy, at least so far, has been something of an anomaly in human history.

Until about a century before our Founding in 1776, democracy was the exception, not the rule. Democracy had appeared temporarily in some ancient Greek city states. Ancient Rome had been a constitutional democracy (albeit with a mostly unwritten constitution) for less than a century out of its near-millennial history. England and now Britain take the prize for the longest-lived democracy: 800 years (last year) since the Magna Carta. But apart from these few examples and post-seventeenth-century developments, our species’ government has been a dismal melange of empires, monarchies, tyrannies, totalitarian states, and oligarchies.

Winston Churchill once said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for the alternatives. Whether or not you credit his quip, you must acknowledge that democracy is a delicate flower, requiring constant care and nourishment. For proof today, just look at Russia’s recent history, beginning with glasnost’ and perestroika, modern Turkey under Erdogan, or the quick quenching of Egypt’s democratic flame in Al-Sisi’s military tyranny.

Any human institution succeeds best when its most successful exemplars thrive. But today our nation, once the “city on the hill,” has become an instructive exemplar of what not to do. We have minority rule—or at least minority vetoes—in both Houses of Congress. Vastly overused filibusters and Senate “holds” make functional government impossible and incite rabid ideological polarization. Gerrymandering and vote suppression insure 90% of House members re-election, except when challenged by more extreme members of their own party. And our political “discussion”? Well, just look at the GOP presidential debates.

In off-year elections, some 36% of eligible voters turn out, leaving a 19% minority of true believers to set the direction of government. So our Yankee democracy is among the sickest, if not the sickest, in the entire developed world.

Which came first, the chicken of general societal decline or the egg of citizen apathy and despair? Bernie Sanders believes that a sick democracy is the cause, not the effect. He seeks to prove his point by expanding the electorate and winning the presidency.

Under these circumstances, it’s useful to give some thought to how to nurture the delicate orchid that purports to be the flower of human civilization but now is visibly shedding petals. That’s the purpose this essay, the first in a new occasional series.

The problems of youth in democracies

Everyone knows that geezers vote more often and more reliably than youth. There are three main reasons. First, geezers have more time to get and stay informed, especially if retired. Second, geezers have been weaned and trained in voting as a sacred right and obligation, which millions have struggled, fought and often died to secure and preserve for them. Finally, in the Internet and Twitter age geezers have fewer distractions. The perspective of age helps them see how politics might be more important to their futures (and their kids’) than the latest shenanigans of spoiled and self-centered celebrities, or the latest app or video game.

But here’s the thing. Many seniors had a good education, often at public expense. For them, Social Security and Medicare, plus the relative security of jobs in big corporations during a much stabler economic era, gave them secure and comfortable lives and now give them secure and comfortable retirements. Unburdened by substantial college debt, today’s seniors, when young, could choose from a smorgasbord of attractive career options in honest, well-run companies, or in the public sector. When they emerged from higher education, the world was their oyster.

None of these things is true of today’s so-called Millennials, let alone true to the same degree. Not surprisingly, Millennials have lost faith in the basic institutions of our society, including our democratic institutions. So an astonishingly large proportion of them do not vote. Their self-disinfranchisement only increases their societal marginalization, in a vicious circle.

Two articles in a recent issue of The Economist highlight the phenomenon. In one, the newspaper’s editorial staff laments the strong economic headwinds buffeting today’s youth worldwide. The editorial’s title says it all: “Young, gifted and held back.”

Two key observations support the thesis:
“In most regions [the young] are twice as likely as their elders to be unemployed. The early years of any career are the worst time to be idle . . . . Those unemployed in their 20s typically still feel the ‘scarring’ effects of lower income, as well as unhappiness, in their 50s.”

* * *

“By one calcuation, the net flow of resources (public plus private) is now from young to old in at least five countries, including Germany and Hungary. This is unprecedented and unjust—the old are much richer.”
What lies behind the backward generational flow of wealth? In democracies, it may be simply that youth don’t vote. “In America just over a fifth of 18- to 34-year-olds turned out to vote in the latest general election; three fifths of over 65s did.” The second article, about Hispanic youth in particular, corroborated this hypothesis: “Though immigration was often in the headlines in 2012, less than half of the 23m Hispanics eligible to vote in that presidential election turned out.”

To summarize, the old are screwing the young, not deliberately, but out of idle, selfish preoccupation. They get away with it at least in part because youth don’t vote. Youth don’t exercise their most basic and important right as citizens of democracies. Any plan to nurture or restore democracy in America has to address this paradox.

The promise

Two things have promise to break the vicious circle of apathy and despair, which lead to disengagement, which produces more hardship and therefore more apathy and despair. One is the campaign of Bernie Sanders, who seeks to revolutionize and reform (not abandon!) our capitalist economy to make it work better and more fairly, especially to youth. The other is youthful protest and activism against injustice and oppression, as best exemplified today by the Black Lives Matter movement.

Both movements offer hope, encouragement, social interaction, and solidarity. Both have the potential to change the electorate and, in so doing, change politics and society. But the hope will vanish and the movements fade unless they can get out the vote.

The information deficit

There are many means of getting out the vote, including phone banks and social media. I’m no expert in them. This essay discusses a related and perhaps equally important problem: how do young voters figure out whom to vote for?

Take this year’s campaign, for example. The presidential free-for-all has been so vocal, so well-financed, and so bizarre that it sucks all the oxygen out of political debate, discussion and analysis.

But we all know that a political team, like a sports team, begins with “farm teams.” Today’s local judges, city council members, and state legislators will be future federal Senators, Congresspeople, governors and presidential candidates. How do youth, just setting out to become serious citizens, figure out which of them to vote for?

Paradoxically, this problem is most acute for young voters who are most serious and conscientious. They know that, when they get into the ballot box, they will be asked to choose among dozens of candidates for dozens of offices—and to vote on a number of complex ballot propositions. In states like California and Ohio, which inform voters with sample ballots and explanatory pamphlets than can run to 50 pages or more, youth suffer information overload. Voting begins to look like an extra homework assignment, for which they get no grade and no immediate reward.

I understand this problem because I’ve had four careers and have lived in four states and two foreign countries. Whenever I moved inside the US, I knew nothing about candidates for local offices and judgeships. Sometimes my own spirit of diligence and perfectionism tempted me to forego voting, rather than to make an ill-informed or hasty choice among candidates I hardly knew.

In the end, I resisted the temptation. I educated myself as best I could, looking to such reliable sources as the League of Women Voters, Emily’s List, and local newspapers. I sought out as nonpartisan sources as I could. Sometimes all I had was brief one- or two-paragraph statements that local election authorities encouraged each candidate to submit for publication. I made an effort, even if only on the day or night before the election, not to leave any office unvoted, and not to vote without some rational basis.

Youth voting for the first or second time need similar resources. They want to help make decisions, but they want to do a good job. They need information.

Conscious of the virulent propaganda that envelops us, from Fox to the ubiquitous partisan TV and Internet ads, smarter youth shun our media. What they want is sources that seem thoughtful, unbiased and reliable, whether or not partisan or single-issue oriented.

For an example, let’s return to the Black Lives Matter movement. Not only does it address a serious, longstanding problem that stains our history and society. Equally important, it has moved millions of smart, well-educated African-Americans to get involved in politics for the first time in their lives.

Already the movement has put honest and progressive African-Americans in local offices in various by-elections. But the general and presidential election coming up will be an opportunity that the movement should not miss.

There are millions of sympathetic whites like me who want to know for whom best to vote in local elections that rarely hit the headlines, let alone achieve national prominence. If we can make a difference with our votes—if we can increase the chance that routine killings of unarmed African-Americans will end in our lifetimes—we will do so.

But in order to do so, we need good information on local candidates. We need reliable, balanced information on the candidates’ records and positions on police brutality and over-militarization. So do many of the young people who march in the streets and then have to decide for whom best to vote.

It’s tedious to compile a factual record of candidates running for local office in the entire nation and put it up on the Internet, properly indexed and organized. It doesn’t take as much courage, and it’s certainly not as exciting, as marching in the streets. But it might, in the long run, produce far more dramatic results.

If the League of Women Voters and Emily’s List can do it, so can Black Lives Matter, just as does the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations. A particularly useful plan would be for different progressive organizations to cooperate in a single website, or to link their Websites to each other.


There are still lots of forces, mostly Republican, trying to make voting harder. But, in the long haul, voting has become steadily easier over my 70 years of life.

When I first voted, in 1968, you had to be 21 years old. You could only vote on election day, unless you filled out a long application for an absentee ballot. Today you need only be 18 years old; you can vote early in many states; and you can often apply for an absentee ballot online.

So voting no longer involves as much juggling of your schedule and advance preparation. What new voters need now is confidence that they can fulfill their duties of citizenship properly, in spite of the ever-lengthening ballots and ever-more-obscure “farm team” candidates and offices. They need well-organized Websites that provide vital information about candidates for local offices and judgeships, with reliable summaries of basic facts, records and positions that let them make up their own minds. And in this Internet and Twitter age, the information must be tightly organized and succinct.

The party or movement that provides these resources online—and that does so credibly and professionally, even if partisan or issue-oriented—will have an advantage at election time. It will help to heal and nurture our democracy. And it may even help restore to youth the privileges and nurturing that my generation used to think of as young Yanks’ birthrights, and which should be traits of any society that values its young.


01 February 2016

Man Hoo Kwong, or Why We Yanks Need More, not Fewer, Immigrants

[For comment on the Dems’ impromptu pre-New Hampshire debate, click here. I’m leaving the main essay below up for a while, for immigration is as crucial to our nation’s future as it is in the upcoming elections.]

It was early 1963, over half a century ago. There was no Internet. There were no cell phones or personal computers. Car bodies were of heavy steel, made in the USA. JFK was very much alive.

Like most Americans then, I had never heard of Vietnam. I was focusing on my sophomore year at Berkeley, supplementing my scholarship money by working part time.

After installing towel bars in dormitories, I became a “Head Reader,” grading first-year physics exams and supervising other students doing the same thing. One of those I supervised was Man Hoo Kwong.

He was of Chinese extraction. He spoke broken English. Although always respectful of me, he didn’t seem to follow instructions. Soon I learned to speak to him slowly and distinctly and asked him to repeat what I had said. Thereafter he did precisely as asked. Eventually I got curious about him and took him out to lunch to hear his story.

Although just an undergraduate like me, Kwong was 36 years old, twice my own age then. He was married to a woman who studied at San Jose State, 46 miles away. At that time, the trip there or back took about 1.5 hours.

Kwong had an unusual work routine. He would work 36 hours straight, without rest or sleep, and then sleep for twelve hours straight.

Since 36 plus 12 equals 48, every two days he would be back in synch with the usual diurnal cycle. But evolution didn’t build us humans to live like that, certainly not day after day. I couldn’t imagine how he did it, and I said so. So Kwong told me about his life before coming to America.

He had been an early refugee from Vietnam. An ethic Chinese in a nation that had fought China for most of a millennium, he had been oppressed. He had worked ten or twelve hours per day in a North Vietnamese jute mill. He had done that for 364 days every year, for seven years: seven years with seven days off.

After that experience, his 36-hours-on, twelve-hours-off life in the US seemed a vacation. So did his separation from his wife, broken only by visits every two weeks.

About a decade later, in the midst of our misguided War in Vietnam, I read a similar story. A Vietnamese grunt in the Communist North had had a heavy missile strapped to his back. They gave him nothing but that missile, a backpack, a rifle and a knife. He spent months wending his way along the so-called “Ho Chi Minh Trail,” through deep jungle, to the South. He ate all the snakes and rats he could catch. When he got to his destination, the commander took his missile, fired it at us Yanks, and told him to go back and get another.

That was when he defected, so we got to know his story. Our newspapers published it. Once I read it, I knew we Yanks would never win in Vietnam.

Why? Because we were fighting for vapid abstractions like “democracy.” You know a word is a vapid abstraction when two nations as different as ours and North Korea’s use it to describe themselves. (North Korea’s official title is “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” or DPRK.)

We Yanks were fighting against another vapid abstraction, “Communism.” The Vietnamese were fighting for their homes, families, and villages, and against the “White Devils” who were destroying their homes, bombing and napalming their villages, and (mostly unintentionally) killing their women and children. As if that weren’t enough, the Vietnamese had been carrying on a similar fight against a much closer and much larger giant (China) for most of a millennium.

The Vietnamese were fighting for their country and their future. We were fighting for mere words uttered by clueless pols. Relative to the Vietnamese, we were soft and lazy. Even with all our B-52s, napalm, the defoliant Agent Orange, and other high technology, we lost.

Don’t get me wrong. Enjoy the good life when you can get it. It’s not the natural state of Man, or of any other species. But it’s wonderful while it lasts.

There’s just one problem with the good life, which Man has known since Athens and Sparta. It doesn’t last long. If it does go on too long, it makes you weak, lazy, selfish and stupid. Then life inevitably gets harder.

How can you tell this is happening to us? Just listen to a native-born college kid whine about a cell phone not working or an Uber “taxi” being ten minutes late. No Man Hoo Kwong would ever complain of such trivia. Nor would a Man Hoo Kwong ever think of voting for a clown like Trump or Cruz. That’s why, among many other reasons, we need more Kwongs, lots more.

Recently Bloomberg.com published a long bio of another Vietnamese refugee, named Tri Tran. He’s leading the pack in a very difficult business: delivering tasty, microwaveable meals to city customers on short notice. His bio reads a lot like Kwong’s and the missile bearer’s: a tale of unspeakable hardship, followed by grasping every opportunity that came his way with both hands.

There’s nothing special about Vietnamese refugees. What makes them special is what we Yanks used to be. Once upon a time, we were human, if not always humane. We were loyal and true to people who—against all odds and unspeakable hardship—tried to help us help them make their lives and nations better.

Our misadventure in Vietnam was a ghastly mistake from the very beginning. We picked up a colonial war from the French, not recognizing that Vietnam’s revolution looked more like our own in 1776 than a falling of fictional Communist dominoes.

But at least our intentions were good. We thought we might help create something like South Korea, again, with our own blood and sacrifice.

When the depths of our folly finally overwhelmed us, we stayed true to the people who had helped us advance our misguided vision. We had airlifts and boat brigades. We built refugee relocation centers. Thousands of ordinary American families sponsored Vietnamese refugees and integrated them into our communities.

A comparison with today would be absolutely invidious. We fight wars half-heartedly. We sent far fewer troops to invade and occupy both Iraq and Afghanistan than Colin Powell sent to liberate tiny Kuwait from Saddam. And now that our half-hearted misadventure is producing region-wide misery and exodus, we take only a token proportion of those fleeing the mess we made.

We know the Vietnamese now. They’ve been among us for four decades. So we no longer fear them. But Vietnamese are not somehow “better” than kids fleeing gang violence in Honduras or El Salvador, or than Syrian families fleeing Assad’s barrel bombs.

Racism is a constant, low-level fever among us, which smart leaders learn to avoid and control. It will always be with us, but it appears to be subsiding, ever so slowly. What has changed is our Yankee sense of responsibility and opportunity. We’ve lost it. We no longer even try to save the human refuse of our big mistakes.

And the hurt is ours as much as theirs. Who’s going to restore our nation’s greatness? uneducated racists complaining about having to endure a few words of Spanish spoken in our supermarkets? a Millennial girl complaining about her Internet streaming, who would no more think about taking a course in engineering or math than walk nude on the Moon? our young native-born college student who takes poli-sci and “communication” courses because they’re easy, and who complains about all the Asian-looking students taking much tougher courses in math, science, engineering and medicine?

Or is it Syrian refugees, like Steve Job’s father or the unknown (to me) lady chef in Cleveland who made the best baba ghanoush I ever ate? Is it the orphans from Honduras and El Salvador, who made the thousand-mile trek all on their own, on foot, at a tender age, and carry in their belly an unquenchable fire to do something, be somebody? Is it the refugees like Kwong, the missile-carrier and Tri Tran, who chew on hard problems until they are fully masticated because that’s what they’ve done all their lives? Is it the people who endure misery and risk death just to get here?

We Yanks are not really a nation at all. At least we are not a “people” in the traditional, evolutionary sense: a single ethnic tribe. Instead, we are an idea.

We are the idea that people can be happier and more productive when they are free, when they know how to “live and let live”—the credo of our Bill of Rights. With that simple credo, we have attracted the best people to our shores, from everywhere, right from our Founding.

It all started in 1619, when the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth fleeing religious persecution. Every new group that arrived to taste freedom made us stronger and better. And when the offspring of those who came before inevitably get weak, lazy, selfish and stupid, another new group has always come along to replenish our strength, rejuvenate us and remind us who we are.

Up to now, it hasn’t mattered whether the refugees wore Puritan hats and bonnets, Lederhosen, Irish green, or yarmulkes. If we start making exceptions for hijabs, beards and turbans, or for sombreros, the flow of new strength and vitality will falter and maybe halt. If really want to close the golden doors, we ought to take down the Statue of Liberty, too; for then she will have no further use.

Sure, Islamist extremism and terrorism exist. But the chance of being killed by a Syrian refugee who’s a terrorist in hiding—especially after lengthy, expert vetting—is less than the chance of dying in an airplane crash. Still we fly. The chance of being killed by a pre-teen who walked all the way from El Salvador to get here, and to escape being killed, is even more minuscule. Why would a kid who went to all that trouble and pain to live commit suicide to kill others?

Careful studies have repudiated Trump’s demagogic notion that immigrants are criminals. The overwhelming majority are not, and for a simple reason: for the first time in their miserable lives, they have a chance to succeed and be happy. They don’t want to blow that chance. They don’t want to break our rules—the first fair ones they have ever known; they want to master and use them to pursue happiness, as Jefferson promised.

Unbeknownst to historians, we Yanks have solved the riddle of Athens and Sparta. We don’t, like the Spartans, have to sleep on cold, bare stone to stay strong. We can have our luxury and our indulgences, as long as we invite a steady stream of immigrants who have slept on cold, bare stone—or worse—to renew our strength and restore our hope.

If we can’t take the tiny risk and incur the tiny collective expense to do what we have always done, from whence will come the endless energy that has powered our society and made us “exceptional” from the very beginning? Are we going to let the Germans and the Swedes take that away from us? Are we going to retire the Lady with the Lamp in New York Harbor? Are we going to decay slowly, stewing in our own juices, complaining about trivia while strong people who’ve known and overcome real hardship never reach our shores? The answers, as Dylan sung, are blowin’ in the wind, especially in this year’s election.

Endnote: Less than two weeks ago, the PBS News Hour aired a segment on how cities and ancient city-states created nucleuses of geniuses, such as Florence during the Renaissance. History and the data show they did it by being open to immigration and foreigners. The mixing of cultures encouraged new ideas and sparked genius, just as today it fosters marvelous “fusion” cuisine.

Footnote: Rick Gladstone, “Data Link Immigrants to Low Rates of Crime,” New York Times, Jan.14, 2016, at A8.

The Dems’ Pre-New Hampshire Debate

Once again, last night’s impromptu Dems’ debate showed their superiority. Unlike the Republican candidates, neither Hillary nor Bernie sounded like a verbal automaton iteratively calculating how to pander to extremists while saving elbow room for reason in the general election.

The two candidates disputed substance and their respective records. But both made short work of campaign trivia and gotchas. Bernie even reinforced his disdain for Hillary’s “e-mail gate.” Both wanted to talk about substance, their records and their strengths, and both did.

Yet if you want to boil it all down, there were only four big takeaways. The first—and by far the most important—was how the candidates differentiated themselves.

Hillary stressed her ability to “get things done,” often referring to unnamed experts and named endorsers of her candidacy. While trying to duck her previous self-description as a “moderate” (and Bernie’s description of her as the “establishment” candidate), Hillary touted her ability to work with others, to administer efficiently, and to delegate legislative jobs to the appropriate congressional committees. In foreign policy, she stressed her experience as Secretary of State, which Bernie graciously acknowledged.

But as is her wont, Hillary always left herself running room. Asked which foreign threat was greatest, she refused to name any single one, just as she had done in the first debate. Asked what she would try to do first as president, she refused to answer directly. While trying to tar Bernie as an impractical idealist, she refused to accept the premise that any president’s achievements get exponentially harder after the first big expenditure of political capital. She sounded a lot like President Obama in his “all of the above” energy policy. Unfortunately, a president sometimes has to make choices, often quickly and under tremendous pressure.

In contrast, Bernie made a logical point—a matter of cause and effect. He and Hillary agreed—even explicitly—on the most important things they would do, with differences in nuance and emphasis. But, Bernie held, if we don’t curtail the oppressive power of big money and big corporations, none of that agenda will likely get done (except by Executive order), let alone all of it. The only thing that will cause real change, he declared, is a political revolution that brings back millions of working voters who have dropped out due to apathy and despair.

The second takeaway related to Hillary’s experience. In more than one instance, Bernie bowed to her greater executive experience as “a fact,” although Bernie has had more years in elective office. But Bernie made the crucial distinction between experience and judgment. Hillary had made a mammoth error of judgment in supporting the war in Iraq, and in doing so without even reading the National Intelligence Estimate, which contained secret dissents of the intelligence community. There were other errors of judgment, which I outlined in 2007.

The third takeaway concerns electability. Bernie said that he could win if he and his party could inspire a political revolution of working people, youth and minorities. Without such a revolution, he implied, Congress would continue to impose minority rule on the nation, and nothing much would get done.

The final point came toward and at the end of the debate. Both Hillary and Bernie acknowledged their respect and admiration for each other. While neither said so explicitly, both implied that they would support each other as the nominee.

One would hope so. If the Dems don’t win this year’s election decisively, the GOP will have captured all three branches of government. Our national drift to the right and toward oligarchy will accelerate dramatically, as will global warming.

In the final analysis, which candidate you support depends on your world view. If you believe that experience matters more than judgment, then you should support Hillary. But before you do, just think of Richard Nixon with his finger on The Button during the Cuban Missile Crisis. And if you think that competence sells better than bold but perhaps unattainable ideas, think of Kerry and Dubya in 2004. Kerry ran on competence, but Dubya won.

If you think that our democracy and our country are in fine shape and just need a little tweaking, you should vote for Hillary. But before you do, think of minority rule in Congress, the immense power of Wall Street and the Koch brothers, the totally gratuitous Wall-Street-caused Crash of 2008, the bailouts that followed it, our three unnecessary major wars in half a century (Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan), the steady drumbeat of mass murder due to too many guns in many wrong hands, and the repetitive murder of unarmed African-Americans by racist and over-militarized police.

They say that Ronald Reagan won because of his “morning in America” optimism. So Hillary tried to paint Bernie as a pessimist and complainer—a point which MSNBC’s patently slanted first “break” reemphasized with visual propaganda worthy of Fox. (Go watch it if you want to become a “political operative.” It’s a brilliant hatchet job on Bernie.)

But optimism has its limits. Sometimes realism is more practical. Today Republicans own our governorships, the Senate, the House, and the Supreme Court. Still they use all the tools of minority rule (or minority vetoes), push hard for vote suppression and gerrymandering, and are quite successful at all of the above. Still they blame what’s wrong with us on Dems and various scapegoats, including African-Americans, Hispanic immigrants, and Muslims. So-called “conservative” philosophy has become so partisan and so extreme that a major-party candidate can vilify and scapegoat Muslims and Mexican immigrants much as Hitler once did Jews.

If you think Hillary is as skilled politically as Obama, to whom she lost, then by all means be an optimist. But if you think, as I do, that Obama and his team represented (and still represent) the apex of political skill, and you notice how small a part of his agenda he got done, then you have to recognize how little reason for optimism there is today, or in the future under “business as usual.”

An “all of the above” philosophy only goes so far. In energy, President Obama managed to secure extension of solar-energy subsidies in exchange for letting Big Oil sell the fruits of its fracking abroad. Meanwhile, global warming accelerates, as does exhaustion of the fossil fuels on which we utterly depend.

Without a revolution in energy policy, our species will slip back to coal, our cities will begin to look and smell like Beijing or Shanghai on a bad day, and we will reach the exponential tipping point of climate change far faster than even today’s worst pessimists predict. (Even if we had safe nuclear powers plants, which some day we might, we simply couldn’t build enough of them fast enough to make a difference, either politically or physically.)

So no, dear readers, there’s not much reason for optimism today. And that’s not even thinking about the explosive, exponential threat of the Zika virus, or the state of water like Flint’s when clueless, biased pols try to handle real crises.

Most GOP pols today can’t even recognize real crises unless their “political operatives” or major donors sound the alarm. They don’t live in the real world any more. They live in a world of vapid abstractions, ideology, propaganda and public manipulation. Some day, their loss of contact with hard reality will affect them as it has the residents of Flint. We can only hope that the result will not be equivalent suffering of our nation or our species.

The world’s leader—our nation—is in crisis and decline. The reasons are clear. To reverse that sad state of affairs, we need a political revolution like the ones that Teddy Roosevelt and FDR led. Nothing less will do. And nothing else will bring back voters who’ve, quite reasonably, dropped out of our democracy. The vast majority of working people see no use in voting; they are just trying to help themselves and their families survive.

So do your best for Bernie. He’s not perfect; no one is. But he has the judgment to see the true causes of our national decline and to foresee the sad effects if they are not remedied. If Hillary wins, she will deserve our support, even our enthusiasm, only because of the utter horror of the alternatives.