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

24 February 2017

Warren 2020


[For a note on what the Exclusion-Order fiasco says about Trump’s competence, click here. For some popular recent posts, click on the links below: In politics as in investing, timing is everything. Over three years ago, I wrote an open letter to Senator Elizabeth Warren (D., MA) advising her not to run for president. Then the timing was all wrong. She wasn’t ready, and the country wasn’t ready for her. Hillary had sucked away all the Democratic Party’s oxygen and, as it turned out, eventually suffocated it.

But now everything has changed. Hillary is finished. Bernie’s too old for 2020. Anyway, he’s too much the old socialist warhorse. He made the fatal mistake of seeming to blame capitalism and capitalists for our nation’s ills, rather than our many abusers of capitalism and our corporate freeloaders. And in the best case Hillary would have blocked him anyway; she had too big a head start and too sweeping ambitions.

Now, with Hillary gone and Bernie marginalized, our nation is bereft of credible, sensible leaders. No potential presidential candidate in either party has more positive name recognition among ordinary people, and fewer negatives (except among bankers), than Elizabeth Warren. No one.

As for the Republican party, it’s in complete disarray. Trump crushed every one of the sixteen GOP dwarfs who opposed him. It would be hard for any serious voter ever again to take any of them seriously. If you can’t beat an utterly inexperienced, self-obsessed, foul-mouthed, over-the-top narcissist, whom can you beat?

The point is that Warren now stands alone as a credible political leader who has not tried and failed. By biding her time, she has become the lone victorious survivor in a field of broken and beaten progressive warriors.

As for Trump himself, he is an absolutely incompetent, rudderless and useless excuse for a leader. Every day of his short presidency makes his inadequacy clearer and clearer. If he doesn’t suffer well-justified impeachment, he will become a puppet of dark, subterranean forces within the Republican Party, including his Goldman-Sachs economic appointees and his cheerleaders for ignoring science and downsizing government.

Subterranean forces don’t make good presidential candidates. But Warren would. She doesn’t make mistakes like blending her personal and work e-mail systems when everyone who has a job can’t. She hasn’t yet made any serious political or policy mistakes, as Hillary did in supporting Dubya’s endless war in Iraq. She hasn’t made the mistake of railing against our capitalist system—just the people, like rogue bankers, who abuse it for their own personal enrichment. And there is no one—no one—in national politics today who can put a finger more accurately on what’s wrong with our nation and express it in simpler or more accurate terms. If you doubt that, just watch this [be sure to watch all seven minutes], or this [ditto for five plus].

Warren still isn’t quite ready. She needs seasoning in the fields of foreign and military policy. She must become a credible commander in chief. But she has the mind, the courage and the judgment. All she needs is the experience.

I have often wondered why Senator Dianne Feinstein (D., CA), a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, hasn’t taken Warren under her wing. I don’t know the answer. But I can say this. Besides helping avoid a hot war with Russia or China, or making sure that Trump’s ties with Russia get fully, fairly and thoroughly investigated, there is nothing more that Senator Feinstein could do to advance our nation’s welfare than to help Warren get the foreign-policy experience she needs.

It’s funny, when you think about it. Barack Obama might never have been president but for Dick Lugar taking him under his wing. Lugar took Obama to Russia, many times, to oversee (among other things) the securing of Russia’s loose nukes. Lugar got Obama appointed to the Senate Foreign Policy Committee. In the process, Lugar gave Obama heft in foreign and military policy and helped pave his way to the presidency.

Lugar, you may remember, is a Republican! He was also an early opponent of Dubya’s disastrous misadventure in Iraq, as well as a fair, smart and genuinely patriotic man.

There aren’t many like him in the Republican Party today. But one hopes there are a least a few among the Democrats. They should be tripping over themselves to give a pol as talented and universally admired as Warren a leg up.

It now seems unlikely that Trump will become a two-term president. While he can learn and change his mind on some issues of policy, he is far too fickle and malleable—and far too narcissistic—to become a credible leader. He can’t unlearn his own nasty, self-obsessed and self-defeating personality, let alone at the age of 71. Eventually, his own huuuuge flaws should sink him.

If Mike Pence succeeds Trump after his impeachment, Pence will have less than two years to establish his bona fides. Progressives will despise him because of his extreme right-wing views on religion and women’s rights, and because he helped legitimize Trump. And Trump’s not inconsiderable partisans will despise Pence because he will have replaced Trump but has refused to repeat Trump’s lies and false promises. He will become Gerald Ford to Trump’s Nixon.

So the 2020 election promises to be wide open to new leadership. Right now, today, whose name shines more brightly than Warren’s?

Besides widening her scope to become a credible commander in chief, there are two things that Warren must do to become a credible president. First and most important, she must gain credibility with the minority communities that Trump has made a career of bashing. These include patriotic Muslim-Americans like Khizr Khan, Hispanics, and African-Americans. Warren must thread the needle of showing how much these groups advance our nation’s goals while marginalizing their extremists. For example, she must support the peaceful, savvy voices from the Black Lives Matter movement by pointing out, endlessly and relentlessly, how over-militarized, unnecessarily violent police are a threat to all of us, and to our democracy.

No pol of prominence today has the finesse and savvy to do this as well as Warren. Having called out the abusers of capitalism without damning the system itself, she can call out the abusers of our system of justice without damning the whole system, or the police. She can explain, patiently and relentlessly, how much Attorneys General Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch helped to fix the system, and how much bigots like Jeff Sessions will take us back toward our own bloody Civil War. You do not heal old wounds by pitting groups against each other.

Second, Warren must work on her squeaky voice. When she shows passion for swindled people, as she often does, her voice gets higher and squeakier. Then she can sound like a schoolgirl, rather than a leader of the free world.

It’s a horrible point to acknowledge, but silly things like this really do matter. Lots of voters hear the music of a voice without paying much attention to its sense.

That’s why John Boehner, with his mellifluous gravelly voice, could become House Speaker despite being a veritable cretin on all matters economic. That’s why a man like Everett Dirksen, whom people my age will remember, could become a powerful senator from Illinois, albeit probably one of the stupidest men ever to sit in that chamber.

And so it is with Mike Pence. Watch this interview of his with Judy Woodruff of PBS, and you begin to understand why he is Vice President. He could threaten to cut you up into little pieces and feed them to his dog, and yet he could do so with such a calm and soothing tone as not even to raise your blood pressure.

Voice magic has genetic roots, but it’s also a learnable talent. Elizabeth Warren has ample intelligence and self-discipline to learn what she needs to know to make her tone and music match the intelligence and incisiveness of her superior political analysis. It’s far easier to learn voice control than to boost your intelligence quotient.

Equally important, Warren personifies the three things that Americans want that neither party has given them. They want Medicare for All, just like the citizens of every other advanced nation. They want to break the big banks up so their speculation will no longer threaten sudden economic collapse, and so that corruptible regulators no longer will have to watch them like hawks in a losing battle to prevent collapse. Finally, they want sensible, practical and effective protection against terrorism without having to bash every minority from Mexicans to Muslims or to fight yet another needless endless foreign war to get it.

Warren is smart and good enough to know that these are all worthy goals. She knows they are long overdue. She understands how to describe them without falling into GOP propaganda traps like “socialism,” “soaking the rich,” or “weak on radical Islamic terrorism.” She’s a smart woman—much smarter than Hillary. She can distinguish a demagogue’s label from the substance of an issue a mile away, and she can turn the issue back against the demagogue, even better than Bernie.

Unlike Bernie, Warren recognized that our obscene economic inequality is not an excuse for soaking the rich or condemning our whole system, but a call to preserve our middle class and, with it, our democracy. She understands that her Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is not designed to wound capitalism or stop capital formation, but to keep powerful banks from cheating and swindling defenseless consumers. She has a mind that penetrates to the essence of issues and problems and separates wheat from chaff. She’s as good a communicator as Ronald Reagan was, but she’s infinitely smarter, especially on economic issues. She could rescue and renew our economy and our democracy.

It’s good to resist a man like Trump as president. His chaotic personal style and “divide and conquer” strategy begs for resistance. But fighting and opposing every single spastic, erratic and counterproductive move of Trump’s are fool’s errands. Progressives need something positive to fight for, as well as a worthy longer-term goal.

Look at the Republicans. They opposed Obama adamantly and mindlessly for eight years, and what have they got? They have an incompetent showman as a president and a splintered Congress, divided among Republicans who want somehow to govern and the Tea-Party and Freedom-Caucus anarchists. These groups can’t even agree on whether or how to repeal Obamacare without shooting themselves in the foot.

No, the Dems need more than resistance. They need something positive to work and to hope for. If a future President Warren isn’t such a thing, I don’t know what is. She’s the best progressives have produced since Obama; she’s riding high in the polls; and she’s a female with none of Hillary’s heavy baggage.

The Dems and she have over three years now—almost as much time as Barack Obama had as a U.S. senator. They’d best get to work.

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16 February 2017

Republican Labor Hypocrisy



[For a note on what the Exclusion-Order fiasco says about Trump’s competence, click here. For some popular recent posts, click on the links below: How easy it is to swindle the American working stiff!

There was Andrew Pudzer, the über-wealthy CEO of the holding company that owns Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. restaurants. Pudzer had been an enemy of workers all his life. He opposed raising the minimum wage. He opposed changing the law that required so-called “managers” in businesses like his restaurants to work 60, 70, 80 hours a week for slave wages, without overtime pay. He lauded robots because they work tirelessly and never complain.

For him, workers are not people. They are commodities of labor, much like the stacks of raw hamburger meat that his restaurants cook and sell. And this was the guy Trump picked to protect the rights and interests of working people as Secretary of Labor!

Even more bizarre was what brought Pudzer down. He had hired an illegal immigrant as a housekeeper and, until caught, didn’t pay her Social Security or other proper taxes. Those taxes build a social safety net for her, others like her, and millions of legal workers all across our nation.

Why was that the straw that finally broke the camel’s back for this most obvious and flaming enemy of workers?

The answer is devilishly simple. But somehow, some way, the GOP has managed to keep it secret from working people for two generations.

More than any other political force in recent history, the GOP itself is responsible for the wave of illegal immigration that President Trump now promises to stem with his mass deportations and his ridiculous for-show Wall.

Here’s how the system works. Perhaps we can all agree that the GOP, as it even styles itself, is the “party of business.” Well, business needs cheap labor so it can sell products and services cheaply and (according to the law of supply and demand) sell more of them to make more profit.

How much cheaper workers can you get than those that are here illegally? For two reasons, they won’t raise a peep about low wages, miserable working conditions, or harsh treatment at work. First, a simple phone call can get them deported. Second, they come from countries where wages are even lower and treatment of workers is even worse than here.

By allowing eleven million “undocumentented” workers to remain in our country, the business-friendly Republicans created a huge class of exploitable, low-paid workers to man their businesses. It has been as close to a class of serfs as anything we Americans have had since we fought our bloodiest war ever to end slavery.

The great Republican idol, Ronald Reagan, wanted to free these serfs by giving them “amnesty.” He actually used that word. He didn’t want our nation to best nineteenth-century Russia by having and maintaining a huge class of serfs.

But later GOP strategists had a better idea. By keeping the eleven million serfs as a political football, the GOP could have it both ways. It could have its cheap labor and, at the same time, have a great way to fool workers who are here legally, especially American citizens.

“Look at all those illegals!” GOP operatives cried. “They’re breaking the law simply by waking up and going to work each day. They’re taking your jobs and free-riding on your welfare payments. (The GOP never seemed to notice the inherent contradiction between work and welfare, but never mind.) They are bringing crime and drugs, and some of them are rapists. We are going to rid you of them by deporting them all and building a Wall to keep them out.”

In this way, the GOP had it both ways for almost two generations. It kept its class of eleven million serfs to do the worst jobs in its businesses—slicing bloody carcasses in slaughterhouses, making beds and cleaning toilets in hotels, and chopping vegetables and cleaning toilets and floors in restaurants. The upper middle class—people like me!—had cheap eats. The bosses got big profits. And the big class of serfs gave the GOP a potent political issue, which it could use to win elections all across the nation. And so it did: that’s how we got Trump.

But here’s the deal. What do you think would have happened if the GOP really wanted to get rid of all those illegal immigrants? Could it have done so simply, cleanly, efficiently and without all the drama, the way its bosses run most of their businesses?

You bet. Just pass a law making any employer who hires an illegal immigrant liable to pay a fine equal to five years’ wage savings. Then enforce that law strictly. The job magnet that pulls illegal immigrants here would vanish overnight. We wouldn’t have to hire more immigration enforcers or build a Wall. We wouldn’t even have to deport people. Lacking jobs, a few might turn to crime. But the vast majority would deport themselves, going back to Mexico or to other countries with more and better jobs for them.

Andrew Pudzer had a lot of strikes against him. He had squeezed his workers for decades. He had exploited women relentlessly, with photos of scantily clad women eating his hamburgers. (Think hamburgers are the best things to eat to keep that sexy figure?) He had reportedly abused his wife and threatened her, reportedly telling her, “I will see you in the gutter. It will never be over, you will pay for this.”

So Andrew Pudzer is not a nice guy. He was and is a ruthless boss-man who lived by accumulating obscene wealth and obscene power over others—a good Republican.

But when it came to appointing this fox to guard the hen-house of labor in our nation, none of this seemed to matter. He might have surmounted all of it and stayed to crush working people even more thoroughly, from the highest official position ostensibly designed to protect them.

What brought him down was a single act of mammoth hypocrisy. This supposed foe of undocumented immigrant labor had hired and exploited an undocumented laborer himself.

Why did he hire her? For the same reason that every employer does likewise: for lower pay and a chance to avoid the paperwork and the tax and social-security payments that make our social safety net work, and so makes life barely bearable for the people working on the bottom of the ladder.

In the end, Pudzer’s own life and actions laid bare the gross hypocrisy that lies at the heart of the GOP enterprise. For almost two generations, the GOP has maintained a class of eleven million serfs as cheap labor, while at the same time demagoguing its presence as a political issue and wining elections by promising to clean them out.

The longer the GOP can maintain this contradiction, the longer it can stay in power and the richer its bosses will become. The higher Trump can build the Wall—the greater the display of useless “show”—the longer he can fool workers at the bottom and get them to vote against their own economic interests.

By hiring and keeping an undocumented housekeeper personally, Pudzer had highlighted the contradiction and the diabolical plan for all to see. That was one bridge too far for the GOP propagandists, and so this inveterate boss man had to go.

Yet the game of three-card monte will almost certaintly continue. “Look at that Wall, you wage slaves! See how strong and tall it is! See the illegal immigrants ripped from their children’s arms and sent back to Mexico! We are making America Great Again, and keeping it for Americans.”

But behind all the show is hard nugget of truth. There are jobs, right here in America, that American citizens will not do. At least they will not do them for the low pay and under the miserable conditions that instantly deportable Mexican serfs will accept.

So you can bank on one thing. That eleven million number will never get anywhere close to zero. Millions, eventually, may be deported. But they will be the criminals, the marginal ones, the expendable. They will be the workers waiting around the corner from every Lowe’s and Home Depot for day jobs.

But when all the show is over, and voter anger has been sated, when the useless Wall is gleaming tall and strong in the evening sun, there will still be millions of undocumented workers in America, living like serfs in the shadows. My guess is at least five to seven million.

They will remain for one simple reason: they can’t organize and would be deported if they tried. So they make a perfect class of serfs for our bosses—for men like Andrew Pudzer who build obscene wealth on their backs. If push ever comes to shove, it will be the show, not these workers, that GOP operatives jettison. The last things the GOP wants is all eleven million replaced by American workers who will demand their rights as American citizens, organize and form unions.

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14 February 2017

General Michael Flynn: Truth Bats Last


[For a note on what the Exclusion-Order fiasco says about Trump’s competence, click here. For some popular recent posts, click on the links below: There is truth. There is uncertainty. And there are lies. For weeks now, lies soft-peddled as “alternative facts” have nibble around the edges of the great edifice of truth and credibility that has distinguished our nation since its Founding. On Monday, truth bit back.

General Michael Flynn resigned as National Security Advisor because he lied and got caught. He denied having had conversations with the Russian ambassador about sanctions. But recordings showed he had had them.

The sanctions at issue were not those imposed for Russia’s risky and provocative acts in Ukraine and the Baltics. Instead, they were sanctions imposed recently by Barack Obama for Russia’s several attempts to interfere in our national elections. So Flynn’s lies about the conversations were current, recent lies that went directly to the essence of our democracy: the credibility and cleanliness of our national elections.

Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador were ambiguous. He didn’t promise anything untoward. But he did lie about having had them. Apparently he lied to several people, including President Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence.

Pence, in particular, had gone out on a limb on national television, several times, repeating the lies. So Pence’s voice, apparently, was the loudest in calling for Flynn’s head.

All of a sudden, the administration that had risen to power on the backs of three Big Lies (Obama’s alienage, global-warming denial, and massive voter fraud) came face-to-face with truth and its importance. Our nation’s future now depends on whether the resulting epiphany will be transient or lasting.

Up to now, Trump and his team have been pretty successful in “making their own reality.” He is just beginning to ken the size and complexity of the job he has undertaken and of the nation he now presumes to govern.

Previously, Trump had seemed capable of getting the huge coterie of his followers to believe almost anything he said. But as more careful analysis now shows, that coterie believed him more out of desperation than conviction. It just saw no better choice. And now his coterie is diminishing rapidly, along with his popularity, as his government gun goes off half cocked again and again.

Trump also had been successful in marginalizing our news media—our principal and most public organs of truth. He did so with sheer bluster and panache.

But our complex society has many other organs of truth. Among them are our numerous intelligence and investigatory services. They routinely record conversations of our government officials with foreign diplomats. The reasons for doing so are obvious: the recordings keep both sides honest and avoid misunderstandings, including some that might lead to war.

Like the White-House tapes that brought Richard Nixon down, these recordings are irreducible and irrefutable nuggets of truth. They can’t be destroyed because doing so would cause an unholy stink, like Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” in 1974, when he fired the special prosecutor investigating his scandals, and the attorney general resigned rather than be part of a cover-up.

As Vice-President, Mike Pence has striven harder than most to keep his record clean of bald lies. Whether that’s a sign of good character or political expediency remains to be seen. But one truth is self-evident: Pence will become our president if Trump is impeached and removed from office. So it’s comforting to know that, whatever the reason, Pence apparently believes that at least some lies won’t sell.

However belatedly, Trump, too, appears to have learned this lesson. His talent is at an apex in imagining, correctly, what a “reality show” can sell. But this lie was beyond even his considerable skill at prevarication, as he quickly realized.

Will Trump learn that governance, politics and international relations are not “reality shows” to be turned and twisted in the public mind with bluster and braggadocio? Will he learn that he desperately needs more people who can handle detail and nuance, and fewer “big picture” ideologues like Flynn (and most of the Cabinet)?

On those questions, the jury is still out. But Trump may have learned a vital lesson on Monday: there are some lies too bald and too important to sell. Some are so rude as to make the entire government “establishment” that he is trying to lead rise up and revolt.

That makes two lessons that Trump has learned in his first month on the job. First, in our nation, the courts bat last, at least on certain issues of justice. Second, despite his rough dismissal of the Fourth Estate, truth sometimes bats last, at least when it awakens our massive intelligence and investigatory organs.

Trump still has a lot to learn about our Constitution, our democracy, and how our huge government works. He’s not a stupid man, so he can learn. And if not, there is always Mike Pence—a Christian extremist but a sane, well-spoken, careful and methodical one—waiting patiently in the wings.

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12 February 2017

Down Under


[For a note on what the Exclusion-Order fiasco says about Trump’s competence, click here. For some popular recent posts, click on the links below: Sometimes you have to get away from it all to put things in perspective. Today my native USA is a boiling cauldron of angst and hostility. It’s riven by racism, multiple tribalisms, bigotry, conflicting simplistic ideologies, and well-justified economic jealousy. The rage evoked by the Crash of 2008 and its self-evident causes is ever-present. And now we have a new focus of rage: the probability that Russia manipulated our election with tried-and-true spying, propaganda and disinformation techniques.

We are like a boxer who has endured multiple blows to the head—some of our own making—and can no longer think straight. And we have elected a leader who accurately reflects our enraged, confused and disoriented mental state.

So I find myself Down Under, in a corner of the world where calm Reason and Hope still prevail. I’m here for a vacation and to look for a route of escape from a possible nuclear exchange between major powers, which now seems more probable than at any time since 1962.

If you want to see a city that can think straight, go to Sydney. For several years, I taught a month-long course there each year, into the early part of this decade. Now the multiple construction sites that I had passed on my way to classes are fully built out. In their places are vast new condominiums and office buildings, gleaming with modernity.

The city’s transit system is a marvel to ride. Unlike most every above-ground and subway train I have ridden, its subway has no “clickety-clack.” With welded-rail technology and superb suspensions, the subway cars seem to float above their tracks, with no wasted motion and very little noise.

Riding Sydney’s subway trains is a bit like riding a magic carpet. At least it’s more so than any subway system I had ridden before, whether in the Bay Area, Moscow, New York, Paris, Tokyo or Washington, D.C. Maybe, just maybe, our new Second Avenue line in New York (which I haven’t ridden) is as good.

For dinner we went to a first-class Chinese restaurant in a big department store across the street from the University of Technology Sydney’s Faculty of Law, where I used to teach. By sheer accident, we came on a night when Sydney’s Chinese Chamber of Commerce was having a gala dinner to celebrate Chinese New Year. (We were relegated to a side room, but the food was still good.)

In the cavernous main room of this sometime dim-sum restaurant, 300 to 400 elite were gathered. Most were of Chinese descent, but there was a significant scattering of other ethnicities. Everyone was dressed to the nines. Most of the ladies wore red—the traditional Chinese color for prosperity and good fortune. It was a radiant crowd.

From our perch in the side room, we could eavesdrop on the proceedings, which were in English. Among the things we overheard was a reading of a message from Australia’s Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, thanking Sydney’s large Chinese community for its contributions to Australia’s commerce and culture.

After dinner, we saw some sights and took the marvelous train back to our hotel, the new Pullman Sydney Airport. The hotel had been finished less than eight months before, with a modern, open “new age” design. From our window we could see four huge construction cranes building mammoth high-rise structures nearby.

As we went to sleep, we remarked on an interesting phenomenon. Except in the tourist areas, we had encountered very few people of our own age, the early seventies. The vast majority of those we saw were in their twenties and thirties. They were of all colors and races, rushing here and there with the speed and élan of people on a mission. They were clearly involved in building Australia’s future and becoming part of it.

We stayed in Sydney only a day and a half. But the impression it left was indelible. What is going on there today is as strikingly different from what’s happening in the US as was the prime minister’s message to Sydney’s Chinese Chamber of Commerce from President Trump’s relentless China bashing. We Yanks seem to have fallen into the trap of many people as they age—blaming others for our own faults and life’s mistakes.

We Yanks also seem to have adopted a new negotiating style, along with our new president. He negotiates from extremes, like a hard bargainer in an Arabian souk. In my day, the book Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In taught us a much more principled, reasoned and professional approach to negotiating, befitting a nation in the prime of its enterprise, professionalism and self-confidence. In comparison, our new method is much like its author, relying primarily on ego, bluster and showmanship.

It’s odd that, just as our great circus Barnum & Bailey breathes its last breath, our nation’s president brings its hustle and showmanship into our politics and statesmanship.

Thinking of all that had happened in our happy day-and-a-half, and comparing it with all that had happened in America in the last three weeks, my mind focused on Horace Greeley’s advice in mid-nineteenth century: “Go west, young man!” Today, anyone conscious of the state of the world would advise an English-speaking youngster to turn his attention ninety degrees counter-clockwise. “Go South, young man,” to Australia or New Zealand, is the best prescription I can think of today for a happy life, at least for native speakers of English.

As many have pointed out, the United States has only about 4% of the world’s population. Life goes on—a lot of life!—elsewhere. For the next four years, the trick for thinking Americans and the rest of the world will be to make sure we angry, confused and disoriented Yanks don’t spoil things for everyone else.

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03 February 2017

Who is Steve Bannon?



[For a note on what the Exclusion-Order fiasco says about Trump’s competence, click here. For some popular recent posts, click on the links below:
    “In Britain, what’s not permitted is prohibited. In America, what’s not prohibited is permitted. In France, everything is permitted. In Russia, nothing is permitted.” — Pre-Cold-War political joke
Introduction
Hijacked capitalism
Mammon beating morality
The people, swindled
The “existential” jihadist threat
Conclusion

Introduction

Breitbart.com and Goldman Sachs alumnus Steve Bannon has a crucial White House role. As President Trump recently announced, Bannon will sit in on every National Security Council meeting as a matter of course. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Director of National Intelligence no longer will, although they may sit in particular meetings at the President’s bidding.

Thus Bannon, who (like Trump) had no experience in political office or public service whatsoever, will replace the decades of experience and savvy of two or our top military and intelligence professionals. He will play a more important role in crucial war-and-peace decision-making than the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Director of National Intelligence.

This raises two questions: how did this happen, and who is Steve Bannon?

The “how” is pretty simple. It goes back to the old political joke in our subtitle: “In America, what’s not prohibited is permitted.”

No law precludes a new president from bringing people he trusts and admires with him into the White House. The practice has a long tradition. Jimmy Carter had Bert Lance, who caused him a lot of trouble. Barack Obama had Valerie Jarrett, who by all accounts served him and our people well, anonymously and quietly.

Most presidents feel they need close advisors who are loyal only to them, and who have no separate constituencies to distract them. Apparently, no law prohibits presidents from letting such informal advisers sit in any meetings they choose, as long as the advisors have proper security clearances.

Informal advisers need no Senate approval because they occupy no “official” position. Besides security clearances, the only delicate question they raise is pay.

Bannon is a rich man; he doesn’t need pay. And even if he did, there’s plenty of private political money sloshing around to pay him. After a presidential campaign that cost about a billion dollars (on all sides) , there’s probably enough money in GOP coffers to keep even a Goldman Sachs alumnus from feeling deprived.

So that’s the “how.” American laws and traditions allow a president to bring in personal advisers outside the usual chain of command. The “who” is much less clear and much more important.

But before we get to Bannon, we must see Trump a little more clearly. He’s nearly unique among presidents in one respect: a lack of ideology. He used to be a Democrat; now’s he’s a Republican. His opposition to abortion is hardly heartfelt, for he’s a sophisticated New Yorker. (One reason for his picking Mike Pence as Veep was Pence’s extremism on abortion and consequent credibility with the “don’t kill babies” crowd.)

Trump’s ideological void goes far beyond abortion. He’s broken dramatically with party orthodoxy on trade, globalization, NATO, economic inequality, enmity to Russia, war in general, and deficits.

Trump is far more a practical man than an ideologue. His famous ghostwritten book, The Art of the Deal, was all about process, not substance. He changes his approaches and his views frequently, as befits a man with no overarching theory who just wants to get things done. His strongest beliefs are in the injustices the “system” has done to working people, and in himself. Narcissism is a personality disorder, not an ideology.

Bannon is quite different. He is all ideology, all theory. His only real-world experience (besides Goldman Sachs) is in online propaganda: the elaboration and inculcation of ideology. If Trump turns into America’s Hitler, Bannon will be his Goebbels—chief ideologist and chief propagandist.

So who is this guy? He’s easy to dislike and easy to caricature. In a world where every powerful male but Trump seems to work out for health and fitness, Bannon is fat and out of shape. With his three-day growth of beard and his random wardrobe, he’s also slovenly. This makes him look even uglier than he would be if he cared about his personal appearance.

Bannon’s slovenliness extends to his speech. He’s far more intelligent and curious than Dubya. But his words spew out in a mighty stream of consciousness, oblivious to the rules of grammar and syntax. He sounds like a guy whose fevered brain pumps out far more words than his mouth or Reason can handle. If he weren’t an American, you would think he was a character from Dostoyevsky’s fiction. Maybe that’s why he likes Russia.

Yet Bannon does have a strong ideology. In some ways, it’s as fuzzy and slovenly as his personal appearance. But it’s there. Its key elements are clear, and none of it has much directly to do with White Supremacy or racism.

So far, none of our “mainstream” media have picked up on Bannon’s ideology. But the outlines are patent in an oral manifesto that Bannon made online to a Vatican conference in 2014. That was long before Trump announced as a candidate, and even longer before Trump “discovered” Bannon.

As far as I can tell from following the news, this manifesto tells who Bannon really is. It’s long, and it’s often rambling, perhaps because it was oral. But every pol and every citizen who cares about this country should sit down and read its transcription, quietly and carefully, in full.

At the end, Bannon answers several online interactive questions from people at the Vatican conference. If you want to get the story from the horse’s mouth, and not from lazy reporters, ridiculously oversimplified Tweets, or people with axes to grind, this is the place to do it.

Hijacked capitalism

Bannon’s manifesto has four main themes. The first is the hijacking of capitalism.

Not surprisingly, the Goldman Sachs alumnus believes fervently in capitalism. But his views are far more nuanced and penetrating than those of most bankers. Most of them are far too preoccupied with accumulating obscene piles of cash to think deeply about anything else.

Bannon recognizes the power of capitalism to innovate, to organize industry and commerce, and to lift people out of poverty. But he thinks it’s been hijacked. Once we had the kind of capitalism that built the steel mills and the railroads. Once capitalism rolled out telephones, electricity, radio, TV, aircraft, airlines, computers and the Internet, nationwide and worldwide, in mere decades. Bannon calls this kind of capitalism “entrepreneurial” capitalism.

This good kind of capitalism, he believes, has been hijacked by another, reactionary kind, which he calls “corporatist” capitalism. This bad kind involves monstrous, powerful, incumbent firms working together with governments to crush rivals and new ideas, to subjugate the people, and to preserve and increase their own secular and economic power. The entrepreneurial capitalism of our past, he says, has capitulated to the cruel, empire-building capitalism of our present and maybe our future. And the worst empire-builders are bankers, including those at Goldman Sachs.

Bannon might as well have called this twisted capitalism “statist” capitalism. For his strongest example of “bad” capitalism was our own bank bailouts after the Crash of 2008.

Here’s what he said about them:
“[T]hink about it — not one criminal charge has ever been brought to any bank executive associated with 2008 crisis. And in fact, it gets worse. No bonuses and none of their equity was taken. So part of the prime drivers of the wealth that they took in the 15 years leading up to the crisis was not hit at all, and I think that’s one of the fuels of this populist revolt that we’re seeing as the tea party. So I think there are many, many measures, particularly about getting the banks on better footing, making them address all the liquid assets they have. I think you need a real clean-up of the banks’ balance sheets.”

In addition, I think you really need to go back and make banks do what they do: Commercial banks lend money, and investment banks invest in entrepreneurs . . . . [So we need ] to get away from this trading — you know, the hedge fund securitization, which they’ve all become basically trading operations and securitizations and not put capital back and really grow businesses and to grow the economy. . . . [T]he underpinning of this populist revolt is the financial crisis of 2008. That revolt, the way that it was dealt with, the way that the people who ran the banks and ran the hedge funds have never really been held accountable for what they did, has fueled much of the anger in the tea party movement in the United States.”
Bernie said much the same thing, didn’t he? He said it more punchily, more grammatically and more effectively. But isn’t it the very same message?

Yet Bannon seems to understand something that Bernie did not. Like democracy itself, capitalism is imperfect, frustrating and sometimes exasperating. But it’s the best system for organizing productive economic activity that our species has yet discovered.

Anyway, we Yanks love it, whole hog, and we are not going to abandon it anytime soon. Had Bernie understood these points, had he downplayed his “socialism” and plutocrat bashing and spoken of reforming capitalism and making it work better, he might be sitting in Trump’s chair today.

However rough his expression, Bannon appears to understand this key point. Reform can only come from capitalists themselves, perhaps with a hard push from government. But attacking the entire system is as futile as the GOP’s attempt to “repeal” Obamacare.

When a system works, however imperfectly, you don’t ditch it; you make it work better. Among many other reasons, doing that and saying that scares fewer people and attracts more cooperation.

Mammon beating morality

The second theme of Bannon’s “Vatican manifesto” was surprising, at least to me. The “mainstream” media have continuously painted him as a closet racist and white supremacist ready to start a race war or to fill concentration camps with black and brown people.

Yet the second most dominant theme of Bannon’s manifesto was a moral one. He repeatedly referred to “Judeo-Christian” traditions and values and to modern capitalism’s apparent abandonment of them.

He cited two manifestations of this trend. The first was state-sponsored authoritarian capitalism. Here’s how he described it:
“[T]hat’s the capitalism you see in China and Russia. I believe it’s what Holy Father [Pope Francis] has seen for most of his life in places like Argentina, where you have this kind of crony capitalism of people that are involved with these military powers-that-be in the government, and it forms a brutal form of capitalism that is really about creating wealth and creating value for a very small subset of people. And it doesn’t spread the tremendous value creation throughout broader distribution patterns that were seen really in the 20th century.”
The second manifestation of amorality that Bannon mentioned blew me away. In a few short sentences, he skewered and demolished the extreme Ayn-Randish capitalism that is so popular today among the libertarian right. Here’s what he said:
“The second form of capitalism that I feel is almost as disturbing, is what I call the Ayn Rand or the Objectivist School of libertarian capitalism. . . . [T]hat form of capitalism is quite different when you really look at it to what I call the ‘enlightened capitalism’ of the Judeo-Christian West. It is a capitalism that really looks to make people commodities, and to objectify people, and to use them almost — as many of the precepts of Marx . . . .”
It’s unfortunate that Bannon’s speech was scattered to the point of being inarticulate. But if you clean it up and polish it, it reflects great light.

The entire movement toward exploiting cheap labor in developing countries was a process of objectifying and commoditizing workers and their labor. Not coincidentally, it made the people who managed it obscenely wealthy—a result they justified as promoting “economic efficiency.” The end result was to leave millions of workers in America and other developed democracies bereft of good jobs with good pay and self-respect, and often bereft of towns, homes and families.

Hence the Tea Party and the so-called “populist rebellion.” You treat people like things and ruin their lives, and they’re not going to like you or your politics. No matter how cleverly you soft-pedal their condition—no matter how smoothly and diplomatically you speak—they are going to reject you. However dimly, Trump understood this point better than Hillary, and perhaps better than Bernie, and so he is president.

The trick is not to value Chinese and Mexican peasants over American workers, or vice versa. The trick is to recognize that all are people, not things. None of them is an apparatus to be used to advance some abstract economic theory, or to enrich the elite. They are people worthy of treatment as such. Jesus would have understood.

So the trick now is not to bash the Chinese or the Mexicans, as Trump seems to want to do. It’s not to push the balance to the other extreme. It’s to restore the balance by treating our own workers as people and countrymen, not inanimate factors of production, and by making sure the next wave of innovative American factories employs them first and foremost. It’s to see them as people worthy of fair and caring treatment, if only as voters.

Bannon’s manifesto did not complete this chain of reasoning. But he took the first steps back onto the right path, a road from which modern global capitalism has self-evidenly strayed, just as it has strayed from Judeo-Christian values and simple humanity.

The people, swindled

Bannon’s third theme is mostly a corollary of his first two. He doesn’t explicitly call it out separately, but it’s there.

It’s there in his take on how our economy crashed in 2008. Banks’ risk leverage, he claims, increased from 8:1 to 35:1 before the Crash—a change he blames on Goldman Sachs’ then-CEO Hank Paulson, who later became Dubya’s Treasury Secretary. “That made the banks not really investment banks, but made them hedge funds — and highly susceptible to changes in liquidity.”

In Bannon’s view, the bailouts were not really necessary and swindled the middle class. Here’s what he said on that topic, in answer to a question:
“For Christians, and particularly for those who believe in the underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian West, I don’t believe that we should have a bailout. I think the bailouts in 2008 were wrong. And I think, you look in hindsight, it was a lot of misinformation that was presented about the bailouts of the banks in the West.

. . . Middle-class taxpayers, people that are working-class people, right, people making incomes under $50,000 and $60,000, it was the burden of those taxpayers, right, that bailed out the elites. And let’s think about it for a second. Here’s how capitalism metastasized, is that all the burdens put on the working-class people who get none of the upside. All of the upside goes to the crony capitalists.”
I won’t dwell on this point because I’ve discussed it in detail in several previous posts. (For the most recent, with links to the others, click here.) Suffice it to say that Bannon and I apparently agree entirely on three points: (1) the bailouts were a betrayal of capitalism and the middle class; (2) there were reasonable alternatives that should have been tried first; and (3) the resultant betrayal of real capitalism, the middle class, and American workers is the unconscious source of the lion’s share of the anger that ultimately elected Trump.

Being swindled is not something you soon forget. I’m still angry about the bailouts, even though my prescient feeling that everything was going south led me to sell my portfolio in late 2007 and allowed me to profit on the way back up. Imagine how much angrier people who’ve lost everything must feel!

Bannon is far ahead of most American pols in understanding the breadth, depth and durability of this anger. What he and his master Trump plan to do about it is still unclear.

The “existential” jihadist threat

So far, there is little in Bannon’s Vatican manifesto with which Bernie supporters or progressives generally (including me) would quarrel. Where he goes astray is on his last point.

Bannon wholeheartedly swallows the “clash of civilizations” theory of jihadism and terrorism. He believes they are existential threats not only to the United States, but to Christianity and Western Civilization. He seems to believe that we can, and must, nip this threat in the bud. He consequently all but calls for a new Crusade.

Three things underline the importance of this theme to Bannon. First, he expresses it in uniquely sweeping and apocalyptic terms. Second, he repeats it over and over again. Third, it arises in his rather short initial remarks, whereas other themes best appear in his answers to questions from participants at the Vatican conference.

Here is one of many sweeping passages in which Bannon reveals this theme:
”[W]e’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict, of which if the people in this room, the people in the church, do not bind together and really form what I feel is an aspect of the church militant, to really be able to not just stand with our beliefs, but to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.”
Bannon’s manifesto paints him as a rather timid, introverted intellectual appalled (like most of us) at Al Qaeda’s and the Islamic State’s brutality. Apparently his timidity and fertile imagination allow him—maybe compel him—to put himself in the places of the many Christians displaced or brutally murdered for nothing more than their beliefs or their ethnicity.

But his take on jihadism is simply wrong—wrong to the point of paranoia. Islamic terrorism and jihadism are serious problems. Terrorism has the potential to kill each of us individually, although with minuscule probability. Jihadism has the potential to turn undeveloped and neglected places into war-torn hell-holes like Somalia, Syria, and Boko Haram’s part of Nigeria. But it’s no existential threat to the United States, the EU, or the West.

There are so many reasons why, it’s hard to enumerate them. Here are three. First, the jihadists have no nuclear weapons. We have many. If it came to that, and if we wished to ignore the massive and morally repugnant “collateral damage” it would entail, we could launch a surprise nuclear strike from a single submarine. With it, we could wipe out the entire Islamic State, including all of its currently occupied territory, in less than half an hour. And no major power, least of all Russia or China, would seriously object.

Second, the jihadists and terrorists have nothing like modern Western armies, let alone military-industrial complexes to support and supply them. They subsist only because we in the West are tired of war. We took too few troops to occupy and lock down Iraq, and we sent even fewer to Afghanistan. If we took as many troops (half a million) as Colin Powell did to win Gulf I in two months, we could lock down both Iraq and Syria and kill every jihadi there in less time than that, if we had no regard for “collateral damage.”

The problem is not a matter of strength or capability. It’s a matter of the lack of necessity, our reluctance to kill innocents, and our consequent lack of will. We don’t do it simply because the smartest among us don’t believe it’s worth the risk of sacrifice or killing of innocents.

Third, the overwhelming majority of the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide want no part of terrorism or jihadism. Like human beings everywhere, they don’t want it where they live. They certainly don’t want a world war with the West, which (due to technology and organization) they would almost certainly lose, but which would stain human history forever.

In 2007, I wrote a post lauding Barack Obama (as candidate) for recognizing Al Qaeda as our then worst enemy. But “worst enemy” is not the same as “existential threat.” Then as now, the only human force on Earth capable of becoming an existential treat to us is Russia, due to its world-destroying arsenal of nuclear weapons.

In fact, outside of the Middle East and Africa, our species is living in a relatively peaceful time. We have not had a war between major powers fighting on each others’ territory since 1945. Outside those regions, the Pax Americana still prevails.

What makes us all afraid is the power of modern media to bring every atrocity into our living rooms. So it’s not surprising that Bannon, a media maven, has fallen into the very same trap as his audience. Terrorism and jihadism horrify us precisely because most of the world has put that sort of barbarism behind it. But horror is an emotion. It’s not a realistic assessment, let alone a plan.

Bin Laden is dead. Al Qaeda is decimated, by our drones and ninjas and foreign troops advised by us. Since Bannon spoke his “Vatican manifesto,” much the same has befallen IS, which already has lost most of its territory. It’s about to lose Mosul.

So Al Qaeda and IS are already in retreat. The West is just beginning to come to terms with their use of the Internet to wreak havoc. Do you really think that the nation and the minds that invented the Internet cannot find ways to stop its being used to incite and assist atrocities?

Although fear-provoking, terrorism and jihadism are a long way from Armageddon. Just as it would have been stupid to start a war with Iran to avoid a war, so it would be stupid to start Armageddon to avoid it.

The world doesn’t need a new Crusade in the Twenty-First century. Bannon’s implicit call for one may be a fearful overreaction of a timid and immature mind. Or it may be a tool of propaganda that has no place in a democracy.

Conclusion

To judge from Bannon’s “Vatican manifesto,” he could be a good economic influence on Trump. He understands how banks and governments undermined capitalism, betrayed our middle class, and made our economy weak. He could be a fine influence on other Goldman Sachs alumni, such as Steve Mnuchin at Treasury or Gary Cohn as Director of the National Economic Council.

But Trump didn’t put him in these places, where his experience and point of view might do some good. Trump put him on the NSC, where his extreme views on military and foreign affairs, in which he has no experience, could motivate huge blunders.

Yet things might get even worse. Bannon’s chief real-life experience is with banking and finance. Only recently has he acquired a new avocation: media and propaganda. Apparently, that’s why Trump fell in love with him and put him in the White House.

Bannon’s experience with propaganda could work in two ways. First, he might find clever ways to neutralize IS’ propaganda and create effective counter-propaganda. That’s all to the good.

But Bannon also could help Trump turn the myth of an existential threat and the struggle against jihadism and terrorism into a massive “reality show.” Then Trump might use that show to justify and distract the public’s attention from internal and external despotism.

We should never forget that Hitler rose to absolute power on the lie that innocent Jewish bankers and merchants were destroying Germany from within. That lie not only produced the most bloody war in human history. It also produced the Holocaust and other grave atrocities.

Bannon’s skill with media and his penchant for exaggeration in foreign affairs have the potential to do something similar for Trump. At this early stage, we still don’t know how Trump (and General Flynn) will use Bannon’s skills.

If they use them to build public support for a more vigorous campaign to extinguish IS with drones, ninjas and foreign troops under American advisors, no harm, no foul. But our media, the public and our pols must be especially vigilant to be sure that Trump and Bannon do not, like many past tyrants, use fabricated paranoia to justify or hide a rush to despotism.

Footnote: Bannon makes a special point of recounting:
“[IS’ fighters] have driven 50,000 Christians out of a town near the Kurdish border. We have video that we’re putting up later today on Breitbart where they’ve took 50 hostages and thrown them off a cliff in Iraq.”
Endnote: For two reasons, I’ve reproduced all quotations from the transcript of Bannon’s “Vatican manifesto” verbatim, without changes or [sic]’s. First, Bannon’s stream-of-consciousness speaking style is sometimes hard to interpret precisely, and I want every reader to judge for himself or herself. Second, the quotes illustrate how much Bannon’s rambling style inhibits understanding his ideas. Maybe Trump should assign a “translator” to walk around with him and tell people what he means. I believe that my many years of trying to decipher hastily written student exams give me special skill in that regard.

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01 February 2017

Trump the Magician: Building Walls, Banning Muslims, Resurrecting Scalia, and Making Kids Hate Ice Cream


[For a note on what the Exclusion-Order fiasco says about Trump’s competence, click here. For some popular recent posts, click on the links below: Trump’s magic tricks
Resurrecting Scalia
Making kids hate ice cream
Conclusion

Trump’s magic tricks

If you want to know Trump and to understand how to fight him effectively, think of him as a magician. He cuts the lady in half, politically speaking. Then she shows up at his inaugural lunch and he tells of his “respect” for her.

He pulls rabbits out of the hat—the Wall and temporary bans on entry from war-torn majority-Muslim nations. The crowd cheers. The plebes swoon. They salute him as the Man on Horseback whom they wanted to save them from neglect and their own hyped-up fears.

They think he can work miracles. Didn’t he, with absolutely no prior political experience, wipe the GOP slate clean of all its best and brightest and beat a woman with decades of experience, who had crushed him in every debate?

But like any magic show, it’s done mostly with smoke and mirrors. The lady doesn’t really get cut in half. (Heard “Lock her up!” lately?) The rabbits don’t really appear out of thin air. The show, the show’s the thing, to make Trump into history’s latest king.

Take the Wall, for example. The highest estimate of its cost I have seen is $ 14 billion. That’s a lot of money. It could do a lot of good, for example, if invested in medical research.

But it’s a pittance compared to the $ 1 trillion that Trump has promised to invest in infrastructure, let alone the $ 3.6 trillion that our American Society of Civil Engineers says we need to invest. If even Trump’s reduced infrastructure plan goes through, it will cost us 71 times as much as the Wall.

The Wall won’t actually do much. Mexicans who want to cross it will climb or fly over it, swim or boat around it (in the Pacific or the Gulf), or dig under it, just as they did before. It will be a colossal waste of money, time and effort, serving only Trump’s political purposes.

Illegal immigration probably will decline with or without the Wall. It will decline due to stagnation of our American economy and the palpable hate that Mexicans can feel as far away as Oaxaca and Guerrero. It will fall from Mexican immigrants, documented or not, phoning and e-mailing their relatives in Mexico and saying, “Lay low. Now’s not the time to come here.” And if the statistics do show a decline in illegal border crossings, Trump will bray and crow, saying, “My Huge Wall did it all. Thank me!”

The much despised and heralded recent ban on entry from seven majority-Muslim nations is similar. It’s all a magic trick. Zealots on both sides forget a simple fact: except for Syria, it’s only for 90 days.

Why does this time limit matter? First, a permanent ban might be unconstitutional, at least without Congress’ approval. But what court is going to second-guess a president’s decision inside the core of his authority (foreign affairs) when he says something is desperately needed, just for a short time, to keep the nation safe? That’s a big ask of any judge.

Anyway, 90 days is a short time for legal action. By the time the issue is raised and briefed on appeal, the sunset date will be nearing, if not already passed. Under those circumstances, many courts would label the difficult legal issue “moot” and leave it for another day.

Finally, with the strict time limit, the ban won’t do much good or much harm. The (probably non-existent) terrorists whom Trump says it will thwart will just delay their attack plans for three months. The innocent alien graduate students stranded abroad will just have to skip a semester. (Those doing research abroad, as distinguished from taking classes here, could just continue their research.)

So the temporary ban will not change the world, whether for worse of for better. Sure, a few unfortunate, justifably terrified applicants for asylum might be injured or killed by real terrorists while waiting for entry. But to Trump voters, they will only be “collateral damage.” Few here would shed tears for them.

So you see how it works now? Under most foreseeable circumstances, the magic trick is an almost certain win for Trump. Our intrepid intelligence services have been working hand in glove with our immigration authorities since 9/11 to vet entrants from dangerous, suspect countries like The Seven. But, whatever happens now, Trump will say his ninety-day ban on entry let them improve their game dramatically. He will declare victory and let the bans expire, except for Syria.

That’s why the demonstrators at airports over the weekend played right into his hands. A Man on Horseback needs enemies. The real enemies—clever and well-financed terrorists hiding in the shadows—are hard to spot and defeat. But false enemies, such as the airport demonstrators, are easy to see and exploit. Trump will point to these political enemies and say he overcame them to keep the bad guys out and the nation safe. The rabbit will pop out of the hat, and the rubes will cheer.

If the forces of Reason, let alone progressives, are to make any headway in fighting The Magician, they are going to have to learn how to fight magic. They are going to have to learn how to defeat Big Lies, “alternative facts,” human history’s most powerful propaganda machine (Fox) and American history’s most gifted presidential magician (Trump).

That’s not going to be easy. The airport demonstrators probably delayed and scared far more innocent travelers than they persuaded. They were about as effective, in a political sense, as the Charge of the Light Brigade. The Left needs to become more strategic—a lot more—if it’s not to be buried by magic.

Resurrecting Scalia

Which brings me to the Resurrection of Scalia, in the body of Judge Neil Gorsuch. That Resurrection is the self-evident purpose of Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court. If it succeeds, the GOP and the Right will have brazenly stolen a justice from Barack Obama by refusing to do their constitutional duties for almost a year. They will have pulled off the greatest political/judicial coup in American history, right under the noses of a badly divided people.

Make no mistake about it: Gorsuch is a clone of Scalia. He may even be worse. By all accounts, he takes Scalia’s constitutional philosophy of “originalism” even farther than Scalia did, although he may not be as deft as Scalia in promoting it.

What is “originalism”? Simply put, it’s a mode of constitutional analysis that tries to let the dead rule the living. And it’s not just today’s dead; it’s the dead for about two centuries.

“Originalism” holds that, when the Constitution’s words are unclear, you dig deeply into history to discover their “original” meaning to the people who drafted it. You ignore the Constitution’s essence, the eternal values enshrined in its prose. Instead, you look narrowly at what individual words and phrases meant to the people who drafted it, often quoting obscure letters they sent to each other or to their families.

There are so many things wrong with “originalism” that’s it’s impossible to enumerate them in a short essay. So I’ll just recite two. First, it’s futile. You just can’t get inside the minds of people dead two centuries or more. Their society, their mores, their work and their daily lives, let alone their businesses, technology, wars and weapons, were incomparably different from ours today.

Not only didn’t they have radio, TV, or the Internet, automobiles or airplanes. They didn’t have nuclear weapons or small arms that can discharge twenty rounds in a second or so. When the Constitution was drafted, it took about a minute to load or reload a single round in a pistol or rifle—plenty of time for a crowd to subdue a shooter. You think that simple fact might have shaped our Founder’s views on the dangers and risks of allowing everyone to carry personal arms?

Second and more important, looking to history is just a tricky way of disguising the real motives for a decision. “Originalists” claim that all other judges impose their own values on an innocent public by interpreting the Constitution’s words. But that’s a straw man. The others first discern the Constitution’s basic values and principles, which are pretty clear from its words. They they apply those values to modern circumstances, with logic, wisdom and common sense. In contrast, “originalists” go rummaging through musty tomes of forgotten history to discover previously unknown scraps of evidence that they then feel obliged to honor.

Like all judges, justices are human. Try as they might, they cannot separate themselves and their personal philosophy and ways of thinking from the decisions they make in their work. So non-“originalists” try to discern broad, enduring principles and values in our Constitution and apply them to an ever-changing world. In contrast, “originalists” look for scraps of evidence to interpret specific words and phrases in the way they think our Founders might have done.

Often the only evidence available is the writing of one our two of our Founders, out of many. We know they all argued incessantly about everything to do with the new government they were creating. So how representative is that?

Which method is more transparent and comprehensible today? Which method better accommodates inevitable change? Which method is more like that of religious fundamentalism, which looks to past millennia for meaning, in the words of Jesus or Mohammed? You decide.

In my view, there is no better long-term way to destroy our nation and its future relevance than to tie the application and currency of its most basic values, forever, to obscure words of long-dead Founders from the late eighteenth century.

Those men (they were all men; take note, women!) may have been brilliant. But they were not gods. And they did not live in the modern world that we inhabit. Instead, they lived in an incomparably simpler, smaller, less knowledgeable and more primitive world.

So resurrecting Scalia through Gorsuch is a battle well worth fighting. It would be so even if the open Supreme-Court seat had not been stolen from President Obama and the Dems by unlawful and treasonous obstructionism.

This is the battle in which to pull out all the stops. This is the one whose repercussions will reverberate for at least a generation or two. It’s worth a thousand Walls, or ten thousand temporary bans on entry for people from seven globally and historically insignificant nations.

Making kids hate ice cream

As those among us who still retain good contact with reality learn to battle Trump strategically, we should keep an essential truth in mind. Sometimes magic contains the seeds of its own destruction. So it may be with repealing “Obamacare.”

Let’s speak true. “Obamacare” got health insurance for twenty-plus million people who never had it before. It got pre-existing conditions covered, making health insurance real insurance for the first time. It let kids use their parents’ insurance through age 26—their most financially insecure years. It kept insured people from suffering and dying due to arbitrary annual or overall caps on insurance.

In all these ways and more, “Obamacare” was like ice cream to kids.

So what did the GOP obstructionists do? They weren’t about to let a Democrat, let alone a half-black Democrat, get credit for the most valuable and beneficial social program since Social Security and Medicare. So they set about to make kids hate ice cream.

You might think that an impossible task. Yet the GOP almost succeeded. It used the full force of Fox propaganda. It made up outrageous Big Lies, like “death panels.” It said government bureaucrats would “pull the plug on Grandma,” without mentioning the private bureaucrats in private insurance companies who had already been doing that, for years and for profit, every day. With a constant barrage of brilliant lies and propaganda, the GOP and insurance propagandists almost got kids to hate ice cream.

But not quite. As time went on and the law went into effect, more and more kids who never had it before began to understand that ice cream tastes good. It’s good to live and to be healthy. It’s good to be able to afford modern “miracle” medical care. It’s good not to have so many verbal “gotchas” when you seek medical care that your life and health depend on lawyers’ tricks.

So now the right is worried. Ice cream does taste good. Health care is good—indeed vital—when you need it. Slowly, incrementally, some twenty-plus million people are coming to understand that the GOP wants to take away their ice cream. Some of them (perish the thought!) might even vote, and twenty million is a not insubstantial bloc of voters.

So the crazy GOP-controlled House that voted over fifty times to repeal “Obamacare” with no plan to replace it is now frantically searching for a plan. Some want to repeal it before replacing it, before more kids taste the ice cream. But crazy old Donald Trump is even smarter: he wants to repeal and replace it at the same time. The Old Magician understands that even a clever parlor trick can’t mollify kids after you’ve taken away their ice cream.

So here the strategy for Dems is simple. If Trump and the GOP drop their magic tricks and pledge honestly and diligently to make Obamacare better, Dems should work with them. But if the GOP tries to downsize or privatize Obamacare, or to enact any other measure that will deprive people of coverage or make it more expensive, the Dems should emphatically disown the entire enterprise and make Trump and the GOP own it.

One by one, as people lose coverage, suffer and die, the Dems should take out full-page newspaper ads, duplicated on blogs and social media, reporting their sad fates. They should make absolutely clear who and what is responsible for taking kids’ ice cream away. Then they should look forward to a rout of the GOP in 2018 as dramatic (or more so) as the Dem’s own routs in 2010 and last year.

Conclusion

To fight everything is to fight nothing, at least not effectively. Dems today are weakened, discouraged and discredited. So they need to pick their battles carefully and fight strategically.

Some of their angst is due to their own strategic stupidity. Sure, transgender people deserve equal treatment. And with virtually every bathroom, male and female, having private stalls, who cares what kids do in them? But imagine how you might feel as a laid-off worker who recently lost his job, his home and his family (in that order), seeing the president spending valuable time and power instructing schools to let the few-thousand transgender kids nationwide (if that many!) choose the bathroom they prefer. That, in my view, was one of the very few obvious political blunders President Obama made in his two terms.

Dems are in the minority. They are up against a propaganda machine so powerful it can make up down or black white, or kids hate ice cream. They’ve got to husband their resources, pick fights carefully and make sure they can win them, either in the law-making process or afterward, by pointing out the ice-cream deprivation.

It’s going to be a wild ride, with a half-crazy man as president, and us Yanks’ most diabolical excuse for a political party ever seeking to manipulate him to make its rich donors richer and impoverish the rest of us. There is no room for mistakes, no room for self-indulgence, no room for wasted motion, and—if our country is to succeed in global twenty-first-century competition that no leader can stop—no room for Gorsuch on the Supreme Court or Jeff Sessions ruling Justice.

The Dems cannot win every battle. Maybe they can’t even win most. But they at least ought to play in a way that lets them say, “We didn’t take our eyes off the ball.”

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