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

25 January 2013

Two Principal Posts

This frame is unusual for this blog. It has two principal posts and one minor one, as follows:

Real Incentives for Private Job Creation
How Karl Rove and Frank Luntz Destroyed the Republican Party
John McCain (and Arizona) at the Crossroads

Real Incentives for Private Job Creation

Has anyone besides me noticed a funny thing? Now that the campaign is over, neither party is talking about jobs.

Republicans are obsessed with reducing debt, despite being responsible for the lion’s share of it. They see our debt as a golden opportunity to realize their near-century-long dream: chipping away at Social Security and Medicare.

Democrats (at least the President) are turning their focus to long-term goals like slowing global warming, and to fixing our longstanding immigration problems, which might actually be fixable now. (While denying that global warming even exists, the GOP is not averse to working on immigration. It is slowly discovering that, with universal Hispanic disdain, it will be a permanent minority party.)

Part of the reason for this rapid shift of focus is that the global economy seems to be healing all by itself. But sometimes it’s smart to address problems when they are no longer so urgent—like saving for a rainy day when you are flush. That’s what competent economists recommend we do with our debt: wait until economic recovery is undeniable and then start reducing it.

The GOP has suggested that reducing the deficit will, by itself, create jobs. Hence Boehner’s campaign mantra “job-killing taxes.” But as I explained in a previous post, taxes create jobs, too. They just create jobs in government, not the private sector.

To the people who have them, government jobs are just as good as private-sector jobs. And just like private-sector jobs, they put money in people’s pockets, stimulate demand, and increase economic activity. Unless government jobs come to dominate our economy, as in Greece, the GOP’s preference for private-sector jobs is an ideological choice, not an economic one. We are a long, long way from that point.

The GOP is right about one thing. Raising taxes just to pay past debt doesn’t create jobs. But it doesn’t kill them either. It does improve our credit rating, lower our debt overhang, give us more financial flexibility, and (if done right) produce a more equitable society.

Anyway, cutting government spending doesn’t create private-sector jobs by itself. It just throws people out of government jobs, puts less money into circulation, and lowers demand for the private sector’s good and services. States like Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin saw that happen in real time under GOP rule recently. That’s one reason why the President won. (Has Boehner learned this simple economic lesson? Doubtful, but stay tuned.)

In order to create private-sector jobs, you have to induce private investors to do so. Duh. How do we do that?

For as long as we’ve had an income tax, we’ve tried to use tax rates to encourage constructive private behavior and discourage excess and waste. Those are the purposes of the difference in tax rates between so-called “ordinary income” and “long-term capital gains”.

I explained in detail how this system works in a previous essay. People often use the shorthand term “capital gains” in speaking of taxes. But what they really mean is “long-term capital gains,” or LTCG.

Our tax law now defines LTCG as gains from capital assets held for more than a year. With some minor exceptions, gains from assets held for a shorter time are taxed at the same rates as “ordinary income,” or OI. OI includes things like wages, salaries, professionals’ fees, and ordinary business profit.

We have taxed LTCG at lower rates than OI since our income-tax system began. Although not always the same, the difference applied (and applies) equally to personal and corporate taxes.

The idea is simple and sound. We should tax individuals and corporations more lightly when they put their money into productive assets, rather than excessive personal consumption or corporate waste. The “long term” requirement of more than one year was supposed to distinguish between productive investment and the less desirable uses of money.

At times, the difference in rates provided a powerful incentive for capital investment. But recently we’ve diluted the difference. The following table shows how:

Differences between Top Personal OI and LTCG Rates
YearMax OI RateMax LTCG RateDifference

The first row of this table, for 1954, shows how powerful an incentive for LTCG investment we had in our postwar boom period. The difference between the two top rates was 66%—not of the rates, but of the amount taxed. Rich people and big corporations could save two-thirds of their taxes by making money from LTCG. That huge benefit really focused their minds!

The difference is much smaller today, and the corporate and personal rates differ slightly. But the purpose of the difference remains the same: driving money away from excessive personal consumption and corporate waste and into productive investment.

The problem today is that the conditions for applying the more favorable rate are outmoded. They no longer address those goals well.

In my previous essay, I focused on the investment duration required to get the more favorable rate: more than one year. Our public companies run on quarterly reports, and we consider a one-year investment “long term.” China runs on five-year plans. If you knew nothing else about our two societies, you would conclude that China would win.

Our tax law doesn’t even seem to know the real meaning of the phrase “long term.” So I proposed lengthening the investment period, perhaps to five years, and lowering the favorable rate, perhaps to zero, to provide a powerful tax incentive for genuine long-term investment.

But an even more important thing is wrong with our LTCG tax policy, which my previous essay didn’t discuss. Our definition of “capital gains” for tax purposes is much too broad. So our tax-rate differential encourages all sorts of activities that are non-job-creating and non-productive and may actually be harmful.

For example, suppose I buy a house for investment, make absolutely no improvements in it, hold it for a year and a day, and flip it for a profit. I still get the favorable lower LTCG rate. The same is true if I buy a share of stock in Apple or Exxon-Mobil. My “investment” doesn’t even go to the company; the investor who sells the shares to me gets it. But I get the lower rate just for holding the shares for more than a year.

In either case, I have made a speculative investment that doesn’t create a single job. Worse yet, it might be helping inflate a speculative bubble, which might lead to another Crash. Yet Uncle Sam encourages me to do these things with a favorable tax rate. He rewards my non-job-creating and perhaps bubble-inflating activity with a lower tax rate than on the fruits of my productive labor.

Why? The too-short holding period of the current LTCG law is not its only problem.

Consider another approach. Suppose we could find a reliable way to define a “job-creating long-term capital gain,” i.e., a gain from a business investment that actually creates jobs. Suppose we could extend the holding period to qualify for lower tax rates from one year to five. And suppose we could boost the tax incentive by reducing tax rates on these capital gains to 10% or even zero. Then wouldn’t we be back to the original policy and effect of differential rates, with a focus on our now most important national economic policy, private job creation?

Politically, this change might require some heavy lifting. It wouldn’t have much practical effect without also raising the tax rates for speculative, non-job-creating capital gains. At very least, we would have to offer a lower tax rate for job-creating capital gains than for non-job-creating and speculative ones.

So Congress and the President would be in a knock-down, drag-out fight with the hedge funds and the trading and speculative parts of the finance industry. But parts of finance sector would benefit. Venture capitalists wouldn’t have much trouble showing that the new businesses they finance create jobs. Ditto underwriters for initial public offerings, except perhaps those rare ones designed just to retire corporate debt.

That part of the housing industry that is now buying up distressed homes wouldn’t be hurt. It could qualify for the new treatment in two ways. If it rented the houses, it would be creating jobs for rental agents and property managers. If it improved the homes before reselling them, it would create jobs for construction workers, painters, remodelers, and interior decorators.

Properly designed, the new tax rates might attract powerful support from those parts of the finance industry actually involved in capital formation, rather than mere trading and speculation.

Anyway, the theory of this change is compelling. Rich people and big corporations are sitting on mountains of cash, biding their time, waiting for better investment “visibility.”

Investing in new job creation is always risky. It’s even riskier when the global economy is uncertain in the aftermath of the Crash. Speculation, while also risky, requires less effort, less thought, and much less long-term planning.

So speculation—not real capital formation—has become the dominant activity of our finance sector. A few years before the Crash, our finance sector accounted for 41% of all US business profits. It didn’t make that kind of money making loans to small business.

If we want to encourage private investment in jobs, rather than speculating, we’re going to have to provide a wiser and stronger differential tax incentive. A differential as high as the 66% of 1954 may be politically impossible today. But any step in the right direction will help heal our economy and encourage us to do what we need most: create new businesses with new jobs for the long term.

This idea is self-evidently a good one. John McCain proposed something like it from the GOP side as candidate for president in 2008. But he had so little credibility on economic matters that no one even noticed. Isn’t it time that someone with credibility and political skill, like the President, took the ball and ran with it?

How Karl Rove and Frank Luntz Destroyed the Republican Party

One of the many canards you hear today is that Democrats and Obama supporters want to destroy the Republican party. Not so.

Anyone who understands our history and politics knows we have a two-party system. An effective opposition party is an essential element of our government.

Thinking Democrats would love to have an effective opposition party to work with, and to oppose. But they don’t and they can’t. What they must deal with instead, in both Congress and in the States, is a collection of single-issue extremists and obstructionists that resembles a mob.

The GOP today has no agenda but using debt as an excuse to destroy government. Once we have a credible solution to the deficit, it will have no agenda at all. It will only have fear and hate—of the President, minorities, foreigners, immigrants (especially Hispanic ones), gays, Muslims, the Chinese, the Russians (still!), and anyone who doesn’t go to church regularly, preferably to the same church as the speaker.

I have written a whole essay on this point, so I won’t belabor it. This essay is about how the GOP got that way.

Two men—Karl Rove and Frank Luntz—are responsible. Rove’s role became apparent over five years ago, as I noted in two essays (1 and 2) then. Luntz’ role is just now becoming apparent, with his elevation from secret advisor to occasional columnist in the Washington Post.

These two men’s implements were different but were equally effective tools of destruction. Karl Rove taught the GOP that fear and hate were its tickets to victory. Then he went out into our grand land and fomented both, precinct by precinct, with mathematical precision and scientific demagoguery. He is a man of distinction of sorts: he was the world’s first demographic demagogue.

Frank Luntz was more general. He taught (and still teaches) the GOP to connect with voters’ guts. Turn the gut, and the mind will follow. You can do anything as long as the words you say hit the gut the right way. That’s Luntz’ message. (If you don’t believe this, read his latest recommendation for putting lipstick on a pig.)

Of course emotion is a part of politics. But so is policy. The GOP’s problem is that Rove and Luntz have led it so deeply into voters’ guts that Republicans are now a species of intestinal bacteria. Unless they manage to get something together on immigration, which apparently they are trying to do, their last remaining coherent plan will evaporate with deficit reduction.

While focusing on voters’ guts, the GOP has utterly forgotten, or utterly neglected, the policy principles for which it has stood from its founding. And in many cases the fear and hate that these men incite are at war with those very same principles.

Let’s enumerate them and see.

Remember Lincoln? He was the party’s founder. He started the Civil War just trying to preserve the Union. He ended it by freeing the slaves. With the passage of the Civil War Amendments to our Constitution (Thirteenth through Fifteenth), Lincoln’s successors made real Jefferson’s credo—“all Men are created equal.” So the GOP’s founding principle appears to have been equality.

Now fast-forward to today. Beginning with Nixon’s Southern strategy, the GOP has made a two-generation electoral career of demonizing African-Americans as inferior, dangerous, crime-causing freeloaders.

First there were the “welfare queens,” invariably described as black single mothers. Then there was Willie Horton, who helped put the Senior Bush in the White House. Next there was Bob Corker’s famous “Call me!” ad that played to the basest gut fear of all: black men taking white women. Finally, there was the 2008 campaign, in which the GOP tried to portray a mild, cautious, cerebral, centrist presidential candidate as a Marxist, socialist, Nazi, terrorist and Kenyan agent, who wasn’t really an American citizen at all. (And don’t tell me these canards were not “official;” Boehner and others never repudiated them, although repeatedly asked to do so. Instead, they coyly smiled, winked and nodded and signaled their “reluctant” accord.)

The GOP has done much the same thing with undocumented immigrants, who are mostly Hispanic, as well as gays, Muslims and atheists. In public—and for broader audiences—Republicans insists that they are not racists, Hispanophobes, Islamophobes or homophobes. They regularly pay lip service to equality and equal opportunity.

The official words feign acceptance and tolerance. But the music is all rejection, anger, belittlement and jeering.

Whom do they think they’re kidding?

Americans are not stupid. The first thing we learn growing up is, “watch what they do, not what they say.” The GOP cannot expunge the stain of consistently racist electoral tactics and strategy with lip service and powerless tokens. That’s why it lost every non-white and non-Christian ethnic group by landslide proportions, from Asians to Jews. Lincoln would not be amused.

Intolerance is just the beginning of the GOP’s betrayal of its founding principles. Remember when Democrats were the “war party”? I do. The GOP used to stand for using economic pressure and threats, but for treating war as the final last resort it ought to be. Ike helped win World War II but ended up warning us of the dangers of an unrestrained military-industrial complex. The greatest general-politician in our history ought to know.

All that started to change with Nixon. He got elected president with a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War, which turned out to be vaporware. During his second term, Daniel Ellsberg published the Pentagon Papers, exposing our government’s massive deception about the war’s cost and lack of success.

If he had been clever and flexible, Nixon could have used that revelation as a reason to change policy and discredit the Democrats who had started the war. Instead, he tried to suppress it. The Watergate scandal, which drove Nixon from office, was part of a massive criminal conspiracy to discredit Ellsberg and the Democrats and maintain support for the war. In one administration—Nixon’s—the GOP morphed from the prudent, cautionary party it had been since its founding to the war party.

It has been so ever since. Bush I started Gulf I for good reasons and had the good sense to follow Colin Powell’s advice and stop outside of Baghdad. So Gulf I was probably the shortest and most successful major war in our history.

But things went straight downhill from there. Dubya had to best his father. So he turned a successful and low-cost containment policy into a disastrous (and disastrously expensive) Iraqi quagmire. And he did it for reasons that turned out to be false. The GOP’s new foreign-policy “intellectuals,” aka “neocons,” goaded and cheered him on every disastrous step of the way.

Then Dubya botched a police action and lost track of bin Laden. So he turned that police action into an invasion of Afghanistan and a war against the Taliban, which had never been our enemy until 9/11. Obama, in contrast, killed bin Laden with ninjas, took out much of Al Qaeda with drones, and is preparing to wind that second needless war down.

“Watch what they do, not what they say.” As candidate, Dubya promised a “humbler” foreign policy and no nation-building—promises entirely consistent with traditional GOP principles. As president, he gave us two needless wars, with about a decade of nation-building in each.

The betrayal of traditional GOP principles goes on and on. The GOP used to be the party of fiscal prudence. Then Dick Cheney told Dubya, “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.” So Dubya ran up six trillion dollars of deficits by putting two needless wars on our credit card. Next he granted gratuitous tax cuts to everyone, including the super-rich.

In the last election, the GOP tried to shift the blame for debt to Obama. But that obvious canard didn’t stick. There are still enough people around who remember how the GOP once stood for fiscal prudence and encouraged Dubya to blow it, big time.

Now the GOP once again is trying to paint itself as fiscally prudent. But its words ring hollow. It doesn’t repudiate Duyba’s disastrous policies or even admit his role in ballooning our debt. Instead, it attacks Social Security and Medicare, on which tens of millions of ordinary people rely for security.

Rove and Luntz seek to strengthen that attack by getting voters to fear and hate ordinary working stiffs as freeloaders and “takers.” (Don’t tell me that Romney made up that loaded term on his own! It has “focus group” written all over it.) The same fear and hate preclude rational discussion of strengthening Social Security and Medicare by putting them on a sounder fiscal footing.

People like me might be amenable to that sort of discussion. But we’re not going to go for a ploy that labels the people who built our postwar prosperity “freeloaders.” We suspect, with historical justification, that its goal is not fixing Social Security and Medicare, but privatizing or killing them.

Next, recall free trade. Wasn’t that once a core principle of the Republican party? It still is among vanishing GOP moderates and the GOP’s business wing. But among the Tea Party, it’s anathema. Free trade has become collateral damage in a fear-and-hate campaign against the Chinese, the Europeans and foreigners generally.

Besides undermining the GOP’s once-core policy principles, Rove’s and Luntz’ fear-and-hate campaign has had three big defects. First, it only works for a while. Ordinary, sensible people, which most Americans are, just can’t sustain fear and hate for very long. Eventually, they tire and ask, “what’s the beef?”

That was true even of the Soviets, with their menacing trash talk and Armageddon arsenal. Once the Russians abandoned Communism and the goal of world domination (or world subversion) of their own free will, most Americans forgave and forgot. While they may not like or understand Russians, they don’t consider them our enemies. John McCain’s and Mitt Romney’s atavistic attempts to restart the Cold War fall largely on deaf ears.

The same is true internally. Once voters recognize that one group is not as scary as portrayed, they are quicker to recognize it about another. The Internet helps mightily. It took decades to overcome Nixon’s Southern Strategy and elect a half-black president. It took only a few years for gays to get the right to marry, at least in some states. When people see how harmless and normal is one demonized “other,” whether in person or on a screen, they stop fearing others and start living and letting live.

The President emphasized this steady and inexorable progress toward tolerance and equality in his inaugural address. In so doing, he showed his political genius. Not only is it one of our proudest achievements as a nation—perhaps the proudest. It is an inspiration to the world and is gathering unstoppable momentum.

The next group to feel its benefits will be peaceful Muslims living among us. Whatever they wear on their heads, the tide of equality will wash away the mud of Rove’s and Luntz’s manipulated fear and hate. No one who thinks about it for more than a microsecond wants a “war of civilizations” or, in the nuclear age, a new Crusade.

Many Jewish men wear yarmulkes; some Muslims wear turbans. Orthodox Jewish ladies wear head scarves nearly indistinguishable from those worn by most Islamic ladies, except the most devout. Big deal. Youth, in particular, just can’t understand what all the noise is about. They see the Muslims they go to school and play with as no different from every other group of hyphenated Americans: damn grateful to be here and not in the war-torn hell-hole they or their parents managed to escape.

The second defect of fear and hate is that its targets always fight back. That happens both inside and outside our borders. Inside, Hispanics mobilize against anti-immigrant hatred and policies, and African-Americans support the President virtually 100%. The backlash of fear-and-hate targets gave Obama landslide majorities among every ethnic and religious minority. Peaceful Muslim-Americans will no doubt learn the same lesson and begin to fight back politically.

If the GOP continues its foment-fear-and-hate campaign, it will consign itself to minority status sooner than anyone believes. The strategy is unviable not only because whites (let alone older whites) are becoming a minority. It’s unviable because the YouTube age prevents the GOP from hiding what it is doing. Eventually, the target groups, like the family in the play “Guest in the House,” will all understand what the villain is doing and all unite against her. What happened in last November’s election is just a premonition of that fate.

Foreign targets of fear and hate push back, too. The Russians push back against Mitt Romney’s and John McCain’s retrograde Cold-War rhetoric. The Chinese get nervous about trade-related China bashing. They begin to focus their trade expansion outside the United States. They think about how to promote other currencies as a substitute for the dollar, and how to unwind their investment in US treasuries without causing a panic.

The Chinese are far too smart to promote open conflict. But they are “pivoting” from us just as we are trying to “pivot” toward Asia. So the party whose leader (Nixon) once opened up the West to China is now pushing China away. Meanwhile, the so-called “party of business” is stiffing the world’s second largest economy, at least in its electoral rhetoric.

We live in a flat, multipolar world. It’s an open electronic stage, with open mikes and hidden cameras everywhere. Nothing is secret anymore. A demagogic speech against a foreign country or its people—even in a supposedly “closed” forum—finds its way onto the Internet and into the hands of the putative enemies. In this globalized world, you can’t bash the Chinese in Birmingham or Peoria and avoid unintended consequences in Tianjin.

The GOP ought to know this. Its policies of free trade and globalization helped create the open, flat world we live in. Especially for the free world’s self-appointed leader, the whole world is our constituency. There are no secret precincts or precinct secrets anymore.

Yet Rove and Luntz still act as if you can divide and conquer, by fear and hate, on a precinct-by-precinct basis in the YouTube age. Maybe they haven’t heard of “macaca.”

Finally, fear and hate can have unintended consequences. The false fear and hate that Dubya fomented against Iraq drove a dangerous doctrine of “pre-emptive war.” Our neocons are not the only ones thinking about that. Iraq scared the hell out of Iran, Russia, and North Korea. (Here again, China is far too smart.)

No rational person wants war with North Korea or Iran, let alone China or Russia. Yet the free-floating fear and hate of these nations and their leaders that Rove and Luntz have fomented make war more probable and mistakes in judgment more likely, on all sides. Thinking people understand this point; pols who just want to win at all costs don’t.

The bottom line is that fear and hate are loose cannons. They are not policy; they undermine policy. Yet Rove and Luntz have used them relentlessly as the GOP’s predominant electoral strategy for a generation.

These tactics worked to elect Dubya, but at what cost? He is undoubtedly the stupidest man ever to serve as president, far surpassing “Silent Cal.” So now the Grand Old Party’s last president is a pariah. He wasn’t invited to his own party’s convention, and he didn’t appear at last week’s inaugural. Everyone, Republicans included, would like him just to fade away. But the GOP won’t ever admit he made a single mistake.

So why does the party continue to follow the counterproductive tactics and strategies of Rove and Luntz? Part of the problem may be a huge disconnect between its so-called intellectual “leaders” and its rank and file.

If you listen to GOP pundits like David Brooks or Ramesh Ponnuru, an odd thing strikes you. They are effete intellectuals. They live in an airy, refined and comfortable world of abstract discussions, mutual sycophancy, rich banquets and powerful people. They don’t seem to have the faintest idea of where their rank-and-file followers live, especially the Tea Party.

Maybe they should browse the Internet more often. Maybe they should read the online comments to their own columns. If their onscreen personality is not an act, they would be appalled at the level of paranoia and venom they would find there. The vicious world of fear and hatred they have promoted or tolerated among the hoi palloi is nothing like the effete and urbane one in which they live. If they’re not careful, it may all come back to bite them personally some day.

Ultimately, it all came from Rove and Luntz. If your rank and file followers are acting irrationally, you have to consider the possibility that the fault may be yours, not theirs. The GOP’s intellectual leaders really need to think about that.

So if you want to know what’s destroying the Republican party, it’s not Democrats. It’s Rove and Luntz. It’s the loose grenades of fear and hate that they’ve been tossing everywhere for a whole generation. It’s their notion that you don’t have to have a coherent, positive world view and policies consistent with it; you just have to inoculate voters with powerful intestinal bacteria.

If the GOP wants to become a real party again, it’s got to find something positive and uplifting to believe in. To most Americans, using debt as an excuse to drown government in a bathtub and downsize the safety nets they rely on when old or sick doesn’t fit the bill. Nor does a “war of civilizations” with 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide, nearly all of whom are peaceful. Nor does a trade war with China, an air war with Iran, or a replay of the long-dead Cold War with Russia.

Making government smaller is negative, not positive. Cutting debt is also negative, no matter how much good it will do. Even “liberty” is a negative when it means opposing any law to make our streets less dangerous or our lives better.

The GOP has become like that horrible character in the movie “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” whose husband described her as emitting “a constant stream of negativity.” No one likes an individual like that, let alone a political party. The party has been so negative for so long that it doesn’t even know what being for something means anymore. Hint: being for various wars isn’t positive.

When the GOP turns away from fear and hate and starts thinking positive again, it will be on the mend. It will do even better when it climbs off the mount of effete abstractions and starts working, along with Democrats, on practical measures to better voters’ lives.

One positive thing alone won’t do. The GOP appears to be jumping on the bandwagon of immigration reform. It remains to be seen how it will quell the visceral fear of Mexican immigrants that it has spent several election cycles cultivating. But even if it can do that, a single positive achievement in a phalanx of negativity won’t do. Everyone knows that, after the last election and Dubya’s attempts to speak Spanish, the GOP is desperate for Hispanic votes.

In order to get them and keep them, the GOP has to change its thinking and its outlook, not just its image. It needs to develop its own positive program for national renewal, including immigration. That will probably take it some time.

Coda: Fear and Hate—the Evolutionary Angle

There is a reason why Rove and Luntz chose fear and hate over more positive emotions. They are our strongest emotions.

There’s an evolutionary reason why. Love motivates us reproduce and to protect our offspring. But if we didn’t fear and hate the predator who strove to eat us, or the rival who wanted to take our territory or food and thus our livelihood, we might not have lived long enough to reproduce. Fear and hate reflect the fact that the individual’s survival must precede the clan’s.

So once Rove and Luntz chose to treat voters as Neanderthals and play on their emotions, they had no choice. Fear and hate were their best tools.

The question, of course, is why any politician or political party would want to encourage us to devolve. The complex civilization we have today would be impossible with Neanderthal values. That’s why they vanished into evolutionary history. That’s also why our laws, our history, our literature and, yes, our preachers, emphasize emotions other than fear and hate, notwithstanding their undiminished strength.

In stepping backwards, Rove and Luntz challenged the very foundations of human civilization. That’s why their strategy ultimately failed, and always will—unless some day we wise up too late to avoid species self-extinction, as we very nearly did in October 1962.

John McCain (and Arizona) at the Crossroads

The last paragraph of the first post above reminded me of something painful: all the good that John McCain has tried to do. The memory is painful because there is a chasm between the “old” John McCain and the one that emerged badly battered from battles with Dubya and the President.

During his long Senate career, McCain has worked tirelessly for many sensible policies. They include the campaign-finance law that bears his name—part of which an improvident Supreme Court struck down in Citizens United. They include repeated but unsuccessful attempts to forge comprises on energy policy (1 and 2) and immigration. They also include some sensible economic proposals on capital gains and a housing-recovery proposal that went nowhere because trader Rick Santelli’s popular rant killed it.

McCain’s actions in the field of national security have, at times, been admirable. He was the first person in either party to call out That Idiot Rumsfeld for horribly mismanaging both the Pentagon and our War in Iraq. Without McCain’s early and loud protestation to Dubya, we might never have had Bob Gates, one of the best Defense Secretaries in our history.

McCain’s support for freedom fighters, whether in Libya or Syria, is also admirable. It would be even more admirable if McCain focused on consructive suggestions, rather than just trying to make Hillary and the President look bad. There are lots of us, including this writer, who want to do more to help the freedom fighters but don’t consider the President’s caution and prudence to be mismanagement or misleading, let alone cowardice.

With this history in mind, it’s hard to escape the feeling that, deep down, John McCain doesn’t really like the extremism that his party has adopted as it drifts farther and farther right and becomes ever more mindless and intransigent. He hazes the President like all the Southern know-nothings, but his heart doesn’t really seem in it. Maybe he’s just doing what he thinks he needs to do to avoid a primary challenge from the right. He does seem to like his job.

But McCain needs to think about the future, not only for himself, but for his state of Arizona and the nation. As a (now) resident of a neighboring state, New Mexico, I can see a clear crossroads coming into view. McCain and Arizona have to decide whether they want to be part of the West or the Old South. They can’t be both.

The West is changing much more rapidly than the South, both demographically and ideologically. McCain needs to think about which region has the best future. Arizona has no Civil War legacy or Confederate baggage. So why should he join the Southern “no” chorus?

McCain is, at his core, a maverick and fighter pilot. Like a clever pilot with an enemy on his tail, he has changed direction many times.

Now he needs to decide again. Do his and his state’s futures lie in continuing to fight a smart, good, cautious and prudent President, who has just proved the people’s confidence anew? Or do they lie in fighting the jeering, extremist “no” chorus that his Southern GOP Senate colleagues have become?

These senators may be irredeemable. Their sitting on a figurative rural Southern fencepost and doing nothing but jeering seems to become them. McCain can do—and has done—more.

It’s time now for him to make another choice and another change in direction. The campaign, after all, is over, at least for about two years. I think he himself, let alone the public, would be amazed at how rapidly his support would rise if—yet again—he started to do the right thing. Somebody has to lead Arizona into the twenty-first century, and Sheriff Arpaio is not the man to do it.


20 January 2013

Of Apes and Men

[For brief comment on the President’s second inaugural, click here.]

The Burning Question
Alpha Males as Leaders
How the World is Changing

The Burning Question. Are we apes or are we Man? Ever since Darwin proved who our ancestors were, that question has been burning. It still is.

There are differences between us and other primates. Some are visible and some are not. Two of the most important are individually invisible: they are social. We are monogamous; many other primates are not. We try to choose our leaders; most other primates follow the alpha male.

It’s funny when you think about it. We have so much history and so much “civilization.” But when you really look at how we live, you see lots of similarity to our ape ancestors.

Monogamy and marriage are the norm, worldwide. But there’s a substantial minority. Polygamy is still lawful in the Islamic world, nearly one-quarter of humanity. Although now unlawful, it still lives on the sly in Mormon Utah, in the isolated southwest corner of the state. African tribes still practice it.

Leadership is even more interesting. For most of human history, we “Men” followed the alpha male, in the form of a monarch or dictator. Who succeeded whom depended on private succession battles, with the victor’s heralds announcing to a hapless public, “The King is dead! Long live the King!”

Our most conspicuous differences from apes were two. First, our succession battles were deadly far more often than in the animal kingdom. (Biological evolution does not like the waste involved in liquidating dominant males. It harms the gene pool.) Among us, the winning alpha male often killed the loser in battle or murdered him in his sleep, like Hamlet’s father. The human loser was not, like beta apes, left to slink around the outskirts of the clan and try again, perhaps when the alpha male got older and weaker.

Oddly, the ancient Greeks were more like apes but seemed more “civilized.” With ostracism and exile, they forced failed would-be alphas outside the tribe and let them try another day, just like our ape ancestors.

Alpha Males as Leaders. But something new happened on the rocky road of history. The idea of democracy and social contract arose. It came from the parts of our brains that think, not our emotions. It had little to do with biological evolution and everything to do with social evolution, which works much faster but is less durable.

This new idea was something rarely seen in the animal kingdom. In principle, it was simple. Ordinary members of the clan, whose fate could turn on the alpha male’s leadership, would have a say in who he was. No herd of herbivores or clan of apes ever worked that way; it was a human invention.

The idea was brilliant and easy to implement. The lag from concept to implementation was near-instantaneous in evolutionary terms—just a few hundred years, maybe twenty generations.

The physical mechanism was simple. No alpha male, not matter how strong or sly, could best the strength of the clan. The birth of democracy at Runnymede was just another baby step: making a deal to avoid battle, rather than suffering the actual combat.

But biological evolution doesn’t cede ground so easily or so quickly. Like apes, we still yearn for the tribal comfort of a ruling alpha male. Because it’s our evolutionary heritage, it just “feels right.”

And so we Yanks had a second term of Dubya, whose stupidity nearly destroyed our society and our future. And so other nations followed alpha males into the jaws of Hell, with Hitler, Stalin, and (in his later years) Mao.

How the World is Changing. Today, our species is in transition. The world’s most populous nation (China) is far from democracy. But almost alone among the great powers, it’s equally far from alpha-male rule.

Notwithstanding all his Communist trappings, Mao was the last emperor of China in all but name. Today China has a Mandarin-style technocracy run by a small committee.

Who chooses that committee? Well, we don’t really know. The Chinese themselves haven’t formalized the process, as we have in our written Constitution. But we do know a little. Somehow, leaders like Xi Jingping emerge from a decades-long cooperative rivalry among the 80 million members of the misnamed “Communist” party. They arise from self-testing, self-vetting and self-selection, out of a process of actual governance, beginning in the regions and localities.

It’s quite possible that this system of rivalry and self-selection among knowledgeable equals creates the world’s most perfect meritocracy today. Certainly no one like Sarah Palin, Rick Perry or Newt Gingrich could ever rise to the ruling committee in China. China’s vetting and selection process would make short work of even a relatively intelligent but inexperienced salesman like Mitt Romney. (Compare the rapid and decisive fate of Bo Xilai.)

At very least, China’s evolving system is the ultimate in peer selection: an “election” among rival alpha males and the occasional female.

China’s system also has certain succession advantages. Its top leaders all have served at least five-year terms on the ruling central committee. That means the leaders who help make a mess have to clean it up, unlike Dubya. In contrast, only one of our last three presidents had any national experience at all before assuming the presidency (Obama led with just four years in the US Senate).

“Democracy” is in the eye of the beholder. Even the Kims’ tyranny in North Korea calls itself a “Democratic People’s Republic.” In fact, it’s an absolute hereditary monarchy—a rare thing our modern world. Kim Jong-un is the young King of North Korea, in the old sense of absolute sovereign.

But if we widen our gaze and free ourselves of abused language, we can see a global leadership revolution in progress. The poles are not “democracy” and “despotism” or “totalitarianism.” The poles are selection by trial (or battle) among two alpha males, or among a broader class of “electors.”

To understand the difference, you have to go back to our evolutionary ancestors. The battle for supremacy between alpha males was personal and individual. The rest of the clan did not even participate. They just watched.

Does this remind you of our recent presidential election? It’s impossible to make sense of that travesty as a rational discussion of policy options. But as a verbal joust between alpha males, egged on by their retainers, it makes perfect evolutionary sense. (If you used your imagination, you could picture Sir Barack and Sir Mitt with raised lances during the debates.)

The big change came when ordinary humans, the rank and file, began to participate in the leadership struggle. It came long before Magna Carta, and even long before ancient Greece and Rome. It came when, in a dispute, ordinary soldiers decided whom to back. They “voted” with their feet and arms, literally.

Read the history of England, and you find this happening with amazing regularity. The uniqueness of Magna Carta lay in King John’s decision to make a deal rather than force the battle to its bloody conclusion.

This transition owed nothing to “democracy.” It owed little to legal formalities like our Yankee written Constitution. It was part of our human social and cultural evolution. It developed by fits and starts. The process is still ongoing. Its developing culture endures and grows in what you might call human “race memory”—a complex amalgam of history, tradition, custom, and habit, of which law is only a part.

The most rapid cultural changes came during the last century. World wars started and run by alpha males nearly destroyed Europe and then, in 1962, our entire species. Perhaps startled by near self-extinction, our species began to wise up. We Yanks style ourselves leaders in the process, but it was and is global and universal.

It happened when Britain acceded to the non-violent leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and let India go free. It happened—perhaps most importantly—when the Red Army refused to support the putsch against Mikhail Gorbachev and let so-called “liberalization” in Russia take its messy course. In the past few decades it has happened, more or less peacefully, throughout Eastern Europe (beginning with Poland), in the Philippines, in the Ukraine, and most recently in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The same process is playing out today, much more violently, in Syria.

Conclusion. It helps to see this slow change for what it is: a messy, trial-and-error process of social evolution, with all the false starts, backsliding and waste that process implies.

We Yanks see Russia today as growing more authoritarian. But it’s better than czarism and infinitely better than Stalin’s tyranny. And we have yet to see whether Russia’s duovirate (Putin and Medvedyev) will mature or morph into something durable.

Most important of all, we Yanks can’t seem to see, let alone understand, how much China has changed, and how rapidly it is still changing. Despite its size and two-century slump (from which it is now emerging), China may yet produce the most effective form of government the world has ever known—a strong central government ruled by a meritocratic Mandarin technocracy, coupled with limited democracy and accountability at the local level.

At least China now appears to be stumbling toward that end. With its collective leadership committee, China also may be closest of any major power to shucking off the ape-like rule of alpha males that is our common evolutionary heritage. A ruling committee not only has no individual ego, to make war out of misplaced pride. It also has intrinsic checks and balances and reflects the truism that multiple heads are better than one.

In the West, “elections” increasingly resemble battles of ignorant armies supporting rival alpha males, but without the blood. Rank and file members of political parties derive their ideologies and motivation largely from habit, patronage, and blind loyalty. Then they line up in ranks behind the alpha males, where a combination of numbers and enthusiasm picks the winner, just as in battle. The otherwise inexplicable avalanche of negative trash ads is just a less bloody means of doing battle—a sort of modern “Saint Crispin’s Day” speech from Henry V.

In contrast, China picks its supreme leaders in a closed process of deliberation among the people who know the government and the candidates best. The “electors” are leaders’ own colleagues, who have known them, grown with them, fought with them and worked with them for decades.

If you ask which system ought to be more stable and effective in the abstract, the answer is obvious. Then ask yourself a simple question. Could anyone—including the most grizzled, savvy back-room pol in the nation—have foreseen the presidencies of Bill, Dubya, Barack or even Jimmy even two years before they happened? Yet in China, savvy people could have foreseen the accession of present leaders (by groups, not individually) at least one five-year plan in advance.

One last observation about our species’ stumbling social evolution is worth making. Our (biological) evolutionary nature still yearns for—and still fears—the alpha male.

That ambivalence explains a lot. It explains religious folks’ overwhelming preference for Mohamed Morsi to replace strongman Hosni Mubarak. And it explains secular folks’ overwhelming revulsion. Yet Egypt may be stumbling into the same sort of “solution” as China: rule by an individual leader checked by a committee, in Egypt’s case the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that ultimately forced Mubarak’s abdication.

The same ambivalence also explains what is happening in Syria. The butchery of alpha male Assad has gone far beyond the bounds of human toleration. But there is yet no single alpha male to replace him, or to organize the opposition. Syria lacks a Nelson Mandela—someone whose wisdom, sense of justice and intelligence are so obviously attractive as to calm hatreds and soothe old wounds.

So a committee may have to do. Committees are working for China and may be working for Egypt.

Maybe—just maybe—the process of picking single alpha males by “free” elections, so influenced by money and demagoguery, is just another step in our species’ stumbling, halting and messy social evolution. That substitute for public battle may not be the final or decisive step. As Chou En-Lai was reported to have said about the French Revolution, its success and durability are still too early to tell.

The President’s Second Inaugural

I could not let this day go by without brief comment on the President’s second inaugural. It’s fitting that he renew his oath of office on the day dedicated to the memory of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.

Without Dr. King’s hard work and martyrdom, a mixed-race man in the White House would be inconceivable. We might be left without the brains and skill of the best president since JFK, maybe since FDR.

So we owe a lot to Dr. King. He’s not just our chief national saint and martyr, far surpassing Nathan Hale. He was our own Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. He showed us how intelligent, moral and peaceful change can improve the lives of oppressed minorities and, in so doing, all of us.

But my mood this day is far removed from the euphoria and hope I felt in 2008. Then I was on the Mall, along with two million others, celebrating what I hoped would be the beginning national renewal. Today, I will be at home, nursing a bad cold, but I’ll be with the President and his supporters in spirit.

It’s not just the cold that makes my mood different. It’s also a more realistic view of the challenges facing the country I love.

In 2008, it was possible to believe in the competence, or at least the common sense, of the “loyal opposition.” Weren’t Dubya’s failings as a leader self-evident? Didn’t he not only fail to get bin Laden but also start two interminable wars (one on false pretenses) with no results? Didn’t he balloon the deficit by putting both wars on our credit card and handing out tax cuts, including to the rich? Didn’t the worst financial crash since 1929 occur on his watch? And weren’t his errors of judgment and simplistic ideology as clear as day to anyone who can think?

You would think that at least of few more rational GOP members would work to correct the disastrous mistakes that their man made. I thought then, somewhat naively, that a handful of GOP leaders would put politics aside and try to dig our nation out of the deep hole that Dubya had dug for us.

But that’s not what happened. Within days of the President’s first inauguration, the GOP fixed on a strategy of scorched-earth opposition. They didn’t even vote for the stimulus plan that helped save the nation from a second Great Depression, although the President had larded it with tax cuts that Republicans are supposed to love.

Worse yet was their attitude. You can only describe them as trying to haze the duly elected President of the United States.

Not only did they fail to accord him the respect his office deserves. They took every opportunity to belittle and tar him with ridiculous lies. They called this cautious, centrist leader everything from a socialist to a Nazi. They failed to correct their own extremists, who called him a terrorist and enemy alien. And they failed to upbraid Joe Wilson, who called out “You Lie!” while the President addressed a joint session of Congress.

And so the mindless Southern “no” chorus began. Not just Boehner and McConnell, but a whole phalanx of southern senators began continual hazing. The culprits include Kyle, Cornyn, Graham, Saxbe, Shelby, and even McCain.

This was not business as usual. It was extreme partisanship that overstepped all bounds of civility and common sense. It made rational government impossible. If the President saw it was sunny outside, these nay-sayers would deny it, curse him, and open their umbrellas on a clear sunny day.

John Boehner, in particular, was and is an economic illiterate. He keeps repeating the mantra “job-killing taxes,” as if there were some sense in it. But there isn’t.

Taxes don’t kill jobs. They create them. If the taxes go for Social Security, Medicare or welfare, they increase spending on private business. Most recipients of these benefits are not rich. They don’t hoard; they spend.

If the taxes go to the Pentagon, they create military jobs or defense contracts. And if they go to the states, in block grants or other federal support, they create jobs for police, clinic doctors, fire fighters and teachers. Many residents of GOP-dominated states discovered this fact belatedly, to their dismay, when their friends and neighbors lost their jobs, their kids lost educational opportunities, it became harder to find available doctors, and the police and fire fighters took longer to arrive in an emergency.

The GOP approach made and makes no sense. It had no plan or agenda, except to drown government in a bathtub. It was opposition for opposition’s sake. It relied on fuzzy concepts like “small government” and “liberty.” But its driving force was fear and hate, of minorities, immigrants, foreigners, gays, and government itself.

And if you want visible evidence, just look at the photos of Boehner and McConnell meeting with the President, aired on the recent travesty of news analysis, last week’s “Frontline” show on the President’s first term. Fear and hate are written on their faces as clear as day. They are, after all, the sum and substance of the GOP’s program now—a culmination of Nixon’s Southern Strategy and the machinations of college dropout Karl Rove.

So no, Dan Balz, the President is not a “polarizing figure,” as the producers of the “Frontline” show had you saying twice. The polarizing figures are Boehner and McConnell and the rest of the mindless Southern “no” chorus. They have no plan or agenda for the country besides starving government and opposing every action of a mixed-race president, no matter how sensible or centrist. And they have treated the president of the United States in a way we used to call treason.

These men (they are all men) are standing in the way of national renewal. They are using Senate holds to thin the halls of the Executive and keep the President from picking his own team. They are using filibusters at 142 times the historical norm. In the process they are leaving unaddressed, let alone unresolved, ten grave national problems that long antedate the President’s entry into politics.

Like many Americans, I admire the President’s skill, grace, caution, care, and empathy. I am grateful for his service and immensely relieved that enough voters appreciated his work to re-elect him. And I am amazed that he has accomplished so much despite the “loyal opposition’s” refusal to be either loyal or sensible.

But on this day, my mood is one of grim determination. In the coming years, I will contribute and do whatever I can to cast Boehner and the Southern “no” chorus into the dustbin of history, where they belong. It is the least any expert—the President’s natural constituency—can do. I expect the process of trashing the virulent fools to gather steam in the midterm elections of 2014, and I will work as hard as I can toward that end.

Update: The Pomp and the Speeches

The actual inauguration seemed to mirror my own mood. Perhaps belatedly, the President recognized that he cannot rise above partisanship when the opposition is so intransigently partisan as to reject deals on its own terms just because the President proposed them.

David Brooks saw the President’s speech as a full-throated defense of liberalism. I saw it differently. I saw it as the beginning of the end of the “me” generation that Reagan bequeathed us Baby Boomers.

The President’s speech made an invitation to begin a new “we” generation. The invitation is entirely appropriate for Millennials, who are skilled at teamwork, if not necessarily at expressing coherent thoughts.

Many wondered why the president spent so much time and words on global warming. He has not been much of a leader on that subject. No doubt he sees it as a long-term effort, on which little progress can be made at home, let alone globally, in even two presidential terms.

So why did he start off with that subject and devote more time to it than to any other? I think he wanted to reacquaint the public with the notions of consequences, cause and effect. He is, after all, a professor.

Bad policies have bad consequences. One bad policy is the attempt to ignore and deny fossil-fueled global warming. The consequences are increasingly obvious: extreme weather that disrupts our food supply, our commerce and (in Katrina and Sandy) our daily lives. For House Republicans, who often seem to consider money the only reality, the big bill they just signed (under political duress) for cleaning up Sandy may be instructive.

Another bad policy is the saturation of our lives with firearms, with increasingly more murderous power in increasingly less reliable hands. Few people are experts in the oft-manipulated statistics of gun violence. But everyone can see that the extreme policies we have followed for a generation led to the mass slaughter of toddlers in Newtown. The President referred to the issue only obliquely, but his inaugural poet gave it full-throated literary flair.

Ideological debates often proceed in the absence of facts and reasoning, by “narrative.” (How I hate that word!) They frequently resemble discussions of medieval scholars over such things as how many angels can fit on the head of a pin.

Many are the unanchored abstractions, the vague and squishy phrases like “small government,” “free enterprise,” and “liberty.” Few are accurate recitals of facts and consequences. So the “conclusions” are broad generalities that would embarrass any serious scholar, let alone a scientist. While honest and moderate, David Brooks is a principal offender in this regard.

So as I saw it, the themes of the President’s speech were two. First, after two centuries of progress in freedom and equality, it’s time to consolidate our gains by thinking about the “we,” not the “me.” The era of unfettered selfishness and greed is limping to a close. The iPod and iPolitics are on the wane. Social media are in.

Second—and far more important—the world is too complex to solve policy problems with abstract ideological prescriptions, reasoning a priori like the ancient Greek philosophers. You have to doff your ideological blinders and look at facts and consequences unafraid.

If you do that with global warming and with gun violence, you come to the forced conclusion that the policies we have followed for a generation are doing us harm. If the President-professor can put across that simple lesson, the Inaugural’s vast expense and long toil (building a huge guest platform for a single day) will have been well spent.


16 January 2013

The Continuing Subversion of “Frontline”

Last night came as a shock for people who still consider PBS a bastion of reason on American TV. For the second time in three months, the producers of its “Frontline” news show seem to have sold out to Fox.

After his two predecessors failed to do so, President Barack Obama killed bin Laden. After a century of presidents of both parties failed to do so, he got Congress to reform health insurance. He struck exclusions for pre-existing conditions, which had let many ostensible insureds suffer or die.

His administration managed to stanch the bloodletting from our financial sector and prevent the Crash of 2008 from become another Great Depression. It did so over treasonous opposition from Republicans, who stiffed a stimulus bill larded with the tax cuts they claim to love.

The President got the auto industry—without legislation or litigation—to agree to increase cars’ fuel efficiency by a factor of two. He pushed through legislative reform of Wall Street. And he wound down Dubya’s two needless wars by doing what cooler heads than Dubya would have done from the start: decimating the few hundred dangerous Al Qaeda and international terrorists with ninjas and drones.

Not only that. The President did all these things over mindless, scorched-earth opposition of the Republican Party and its very own Frankenstein monster, the Tea Party.

And that’s still not all. Against personal opposition so intense that it borders on hatred (and treason), he managed to get re-elected. He won the presidency twice by a margin not seen by any president since 1956. And he did it, again, with the backing of more than two thirds of the nation’s productivity, and against the opposition of states that take more than they pay in taxes.

Based on these facts, it sound like a pretty successful record, no? So how do you make it seem like failure?

Watch last night’s “Frontline” episode and see. You’ll have to Google it yourself: I link to news and reasoned analysis of facts, not propaganda.

Dan Balz of the Washington Post pronounced the program’s theme. The producers had him state it twice, as if PBS’ educated audience needs repetition like the morons who watch Fox. The President, he said, is a “polarizing figure,” who cannot make progress unless he changes.

Viewers who like their facts raw will remember the program’s early moments, which tell a different story. There it detailed how Republicans met in closed session days after Obama’s first election to nurse their wounds and fix their strategy of lockstep opposition. Instead of cooperating to face a financial crisis that all agreed was horrendous, they determined, as Rush put it, to make the President fail.

Balz’s Foxish bookends contradicted even the facts in this bastard program. But never mind. That’s what Fox’ actors and PR folks do—stay “on message” regardless of facts or sense.

A fact-averse message was not the only thing wrong with this show. Its video style aped Fox. Instead of reporting facts, it created “impressions” of them, using overlapping sound bites from various observers. The effect was like an audio collage by a mad abstract painter, or like Jon Stewart’s echo chamber, which is supposed to be funny.

Willy nilly, “Frontline’s” propagandists let some contrary impressions ship through. Take a close look at Mitch McConnell’s and John Boehner’s faces in the few shots of each alone with Obama. They show where these men are coming from in a way that no sound bites can disguise.

Through his character James Bond, Ian Fleming once said, “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times, it’s enemy action.” I have seen only two subversions of news on “Frontline,” but the writing is on the wall. Whoever produces the show now is an enemy of both the President and credible journalism.

American commercial TV “journalism” has long been all junk, all the time. With the subversion of “Frontline,” PBS may now be en route to the same destination.


09 January 2013

Fear and Age

The monicker “GOP” for the Republican Party is no longer apt.

The party is no longer grand. Instead, it’s small, selfish and mean-spirited. It is old, about which much more later.

But it’s not really a political party. It’s a collection of single-issue extremists. Except for obsessing over the deficit and trying to cut it too quickly, far sooner than the experts recommend, it has no coherent plan or program.

The nearest thing the GOP has to a platform is vague and squishy bumper stickers like “more freedom” and “less government.” Selfishness—cutting spending on infrastructure and social necessities without raising taxes—is not a plan. At least it’s not a rational plan that accounts for cause and effect.

Pundits looking at the recent election’s demographics attribute all this to race and ethnicity, old whites versus rising younger minorities. But skin color is just on the surface. What lies beneath?

Probe deeper, and you find age a much more powerful indicator of the GOP’s present and better predictor of its future without real reform. Despite Mitt’s virtuoso salesmanship, people under 30 preferred Obama by a 23% margin. That’s a slightly greater margin than in Lyndon Johnson’s never-surpassed landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964. [click on year tab “1964”]

Why was that so? Well, there’s always the Occam’s Razor answer: Obama was the best candidate.

But why did older whites prefer the less qualified candidate? Are they all racists? Ask them, and most will tell you “no.” Of course there was and is plenty of unconscious racism, expertly exploited by Fox and Rush.

But it’s hard to believe that skin color is the whole answer. To better approach the truth, you must look at how college dropout Karl Rove managed to assemble a majority for George W. Bush, likely the stupidest man ever to become our president.

Did Rove have a coherent rational plan for our national future? Did he have a blueprint for economic success, what business people call a “business plan”?

Not at all. What he had was a blueprint for success in electoral politics. It had nothing to do with policy.

Rove’s blueprint was based on emotion, not reason. He relied on analysis of cause and effect only in an emotional sense: manipulating people’s votes by pushing their hot buttons. Rove won for Dubya by instilling fear in a large segment of the electorate, precinct by precinct. And the fear he instilled was based almost entirely on isolated single issues.

Rove spooked the religious right with fear of rampant abortions. He raised fanciful specters of religious freedom morphing into suppression of religion. He cowed families into thinking that gays marrying each other and teaching children would subvert children’s sexuality and somehow impair marriage generally. He scared small-town and small-state people with fears that Washington would control their schools and take away their Bibles and guns. And he spooked everyone with the fear that people speaking Spanish on the streets and in supermarkets would conquer our nation peacefully and destroy our culture.

Rove did not act alone. In all this fear mongering, Fox and Rush and other loudmouths were his eager handmaidens.

When President Obama mentioned small-town people “clinging” to guns and religion, he misspoke only in one respect. Their clinging was not a cause, i.e., an intrinsic demographic characteristic. It was an effect. It was a conscious and deliberate aim and the outcome of Karl Rove’s narrow electoral strategy.

In the years since 2000, the GOP has discovered and exploited new sources of fear. The attacks of 9/11 and Dubya’s “war on terror” gave it not only the first real national war on a noun, but Islamophobia as well.

Here Rove was hardly original. In exploiting fear of Islam and Muslims, Rove just copied the blueprint drafted for Communism by Joe McCarthy and perfected by Richard Nixon.

There is no fear so durable or manipulable as the fear that your peaceful neighbors and compatriots are secretly your enemies. It worked for the GOP during the Cold War, and it nearly worked again in 2012.

Other sources of fear came with the decline of American manufacturing and the Crash of 2008. China, Rove told us, was taking away our jobs. So were Mexican immigrants. The poor and hungry masses that our Statue of Liberty once welcomed with open arms were going to destroy our culture and take the food from our tables. It was them or us. All this false fear distracted Americans from the real cause of their discontent: rampant gambling by unregulated bankers .

But the politics of fear has two problems. First, it is irrational; it ignores consequences and fails to consider cause and effect.

During the Cold War, the politics of fear (of Communists) not only wasted enormous sums on world-destroying quantities of nuclear weapons. In October 1962, it nearly extinguished our species.

The fears that Rove incited to win elections have had no such dire consequence, at least so far. But they have made governing harder. They’ve destroyed social cohesion and turned Americans against each other. They’ve produced gridlock in Congress. They’ve conditioned a class of arrogant GOP House freshmen who think they know all the answers and won’t listen to anyone, even senior leaders of their own party.

But worst of all, Rove’s fears have undermined the very values that once made the GOP “grand.” Its greatest leader was its founder, Abraham Lincoln, who fought our bitterest war to keep our country whole. He also fought to realize the ideals of Thomas Jefferson (a Democrat)—that all men are created equal.

But that credo doesn’t jibe with fear and hate. It’s hard to think of others as equal when you are taught to fear and hate them.

Rove-inspired fears of immigrants and foreigners even undermined a key pillar of GOP economic policy, freedom of trade. Progress in WTO talks has nearly stalled, and our rate of ratification of bilateral free-trade agreements has slowed.

If Republicans want to know why, they should look in the mirror. Then they should listen to what members of their very own Frankenstein monster, the Tea Party, actually say. While these worthies are bashing free trade, immigrants and foreigners generally, plus refighting the Cold War, foreign nations are absorbing the values that we and the Brits taught and making deals without us.

The policy of fear is not just bad policy. Any soldier can tell you that fear kills clear thinking and makes any situation worse. In the long run, it’s also bad politics.

Why? Because fear is a facet of age, not youth. What we oldsters fear youth sees as bland fact or opportunity. They don’t fear the Chinese; they study Mandarin. African-Americans don’t scare them. They’ve listened to “black” music all their lives; they follow and emulate brilliant leaders like the President and Cory Booker. They admire Oprah Winfrey’s accepting nature and generosity of spirit. They don’t fear Hispanics in America; they learn Spanish, study the history of our Western Hemisphere and dance and eat salsa.

Since its last reasonable president (the senior Bush), the GOP’s political program has been based on fear. But like a bad flu, fear is self-limiting. The smart wise up, and the inculcated true fearers eventually die off.

Of course the GOP can continue to invent new reasons for overblown fear, just as it “pivoted” from Communism to Islam. But if it does so, it will continue to play best to aging native whites—aging because youth is fearless, and native whites because minorities, foreigners and immigrants are the inevitable targets of manipulated fears.

Out of all the GOP-spawned fears over the years, only fear of immigrants has a semblance of rationality. If we close the doors of immigration, our population will continue to age, and the transition to majority-less demographics will take longer. We will look more like senescent Japan for longer than otherwise.

That might give the GOP a slightly longer lease on its now pointless life. But it’s hardly the fate that the youngest and once most energetic major power deserves.

Youth or age. Optimism or fear. These are choices that the GOP has made wrongly for a generation. Without fundamental reform it, like an old soldier, may just fade away, in an inescapable demographic landslide.