A Bold New World View, Part 6- The Detached Elites

Read Part 1 here.

Read Part 2 here.

Read Part 3 here.

Read Part 4 here.

Read Part 5 here.

Something struck me from Julian Castro’s Presidential announcement speech-

Today we live in a world in which brainpower is the new currency of success.

There’s nothing at all wrong with what he said there. In fact, it’s been a boilerplate assumption of both sides in Washington for basically my entire life. It’s the backbone of globalization, and really of the post-industrial America. The idea that nurtured intellect is the key to modern success isn’t a revolutionary idea, or for that matter wrong. So don’t take any of this as a criticism of him.

Let’s have a real conversation though, about how a great country goes from great to Trump. The question I would pose to Castro and every other candidate for President in 2020 is simple- if intellectual capital is the key to success, what are we going to do with the 250 million people or so living in this country that are either unprepared or incapable of competing in that world? The “opiate of the masses” for these people in recent decades has been “more education funding” and “job training,” and that’s great and all, but it’s not radically altering outcomes. These people may be inconvenient for policy makers, but they’re not going away anytime- not just not soon. The country will always have low-skilled workers, mediocre people, and frankly, some people who are not very smart. They count as people, the same as the rest of us, they get the same vote, and you can’t just ignore them away. What they’re being offered hasn’t cut it so far.

Let’s be honest, neither political party has shown that it cares much about the folks we’re talking about. Democrats snicker about them, Republicans exploit them, and the political Press only really covers them as an insult. From within that void, a complete conman like Donald Trump can emerge. Sure, he promised them the ridiculous- a return to coal mines, protection for their world views, and even a return to prominence- but consider the alternative. I worked for Hillary Clinton, I love Hillary Clinton, but her campaign conceded a lot more of America to Trump than it should have, or needed to, just as Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and all the Republican primary candidates did before them. She did not lose because she didn’t go to Wisconsin, but it is anecdotal of why she did lose- her campaign believed it could win without competing in places it didn’t want to compete.

The point of this piece isn’t to re-hash 2016 though, that’s been done a lot. The point of this piece is to highlight the degree to which American politics are detached from Americans, and how it impacts our system. Over 90% of America didn’t go to an Ivy League school. I’m guessing a large majority didn’t go to even a private college. Find the last American President without an Ivy League degree? You’re going back a ways. Remove the military academies and you can count the “commoner” Presidents of the last century on one hand. Find a Supreme Court nominee not from Harvard Law- let alone the Ivy League. You almost can’t be a U.S. Senator without being a millionaire first. Members of the U.S. House, “The People’s House,” are all living in a class well above the income of the average member of the public. Last year in Illinois, we actually saw a billionaire vs. billionaire Gubernatorial race. Here in Pennsylvania, both men were multi-millionaires many time over. New Jersey’s last two Democratic Governors we’re multi-millionaires, with a background at Goldman Sachs.

Don’t mistake me pointing this out as a call for us to go down to the local McDonald’s to pick our Congressman. What I’m stating is just a fact, and while it doesn’t make our government all bad, it clearly has impacted our decision making and values. Our response to the 2008 economic meltdown was to bail out the banks- arguably the right choice- but to limit the size of the Stimulus that was supposed to reach the general public. While military spending has grown exponentially since World War II, spending on infrastructure hasn’t grown at the same rate. States never lack money for economic development that benefits rich developers, but seem to struggle at funding public education without tax increases on the middle class. It’s not that they’re always, actually wrong, it’s that they seem to always err on the same side of judgment.

I’m not into Democratic socialism, or straight up class warfare, but it’s not a radical leap to say that rich people tend to value the things rich people know. Their perspective places the value on the work they do. It also tends to downplay the problems of the “other people,” people that most of them just don’t even know. There is a good reason they view ideas like guaranteed universal income, Medicare for All, guaranteed housing, increases in Social Security, and other safety measures as “radical,” and it’s not the merit of their ideas. They’re just not that important. There’s also a reason the payroll tax hasn’t kept up with inflation (which, by the way, is how we fund entitlements), and most of the big tax write-offs are for the wealthy, rather than everyone getting their first $30,000 tax free. There is a good reason we discuss drug-testing and work requirements for welfare and Medicaid, but not for farm subsidies and tax breaks, and it is neither the cost of the ideas, nor the merit. It is perspective, values, and priorities- and the value we place on what each group of people does.

Our government is largely out of touch with the public, and we are living through the backlash now. While Trump ran as change, it’s important to note that he is handing subsidy money out to agribusiness conglomerates right now, rather than consumers buying milk- I’m saying he’s a fraud of course. Regardless of him though, it’s worth understanding that the sickness in the government isn’t confined to him. As long as campaigns cost as much as they do, the government will be full of rich people- and I don’t have the solution to that today. You will have populist grifters and thieves come along from time to time and promise the world, with no record or plan to get them done (I’m thinking of two 2016 candidates, and even a new, young Congresswoman here), but they are not the solution to the detachment of our elites from the public. Our government desperately needs a change in perspective, in values, and in priorities, one that the average Harvard MBA just doesn’t have.

The Stuff You Can’t Recover

If there is one thing the Trump Presidency has made clear, it is how much can be undone after a President leaves. It’s hard to undo the big stuff- repealing major acts of Congress, for instance. It takes time to undo a healthy economy too. It’s not hard though to cut taxes, and create endless federal deficits. It’s not hard to undo executive orders. You can undo a regulation with the stroke of a pen. When all else fails, a new President can basically just not enforce a rule they don’t agree with. Finite resources, different legal interpretations, and general deference on executive matters allow a President to make changes in a hurry.

One area of damage that our unhinged President is being allowed to carry out with basic impunity is the destruction of our wildlife, public lands, and natural resources. He has given away record amounts of public land in under two years. He’s made it easier to hunt hibernating bear cubs. He pulled out of the Paris Accords. He’s eliminating fuel efficiency standards. He’s chipping away at protections for endangered species. He wants to take away California’s right to limit greenhouse gas emissions. I’m probably only scratching the surface on the damage this man has already done to our country, the environment, and our world.

The problem with this is that once you destroy a part of our natural world, it’s gone. If an endangered species is killed off by hunters, you can’t bring it back once it’s extinct. If you allow chemicals and poisons to be dumped into our water supply, the damage to the fish and our drinking water is permanent. If you destroy the habitat for polar bears and other Arctic wildlife, they die for good. If you do nothing about climate change, and allow carbon emissions to go unchecked for four years, it takes much, much longer to heal the damage- if it’s not too late already.

I’m not the traditional “tree hugger” environmentalist. I’m not anti-hunting, I understand the ecological needs and benefits from hunting, actually. I know we can’t get rid of all fossil fuels tomorrow, so we will have to live with energy exploration and it’s risks for a while. I’m not anti-car. I’m not asking for anything extreme at all, just some common sense. Don’t kill the emerging solar industry, and it’s thousands of jobs and clean, renewable energy. Make cars run more efficient. Start moving tax incentives away from coal and towards renewables. Protect clean water, both for our drinking purposes and it’s inhabitants. Regulate energy exploration to keep our environment safe. Protect wildlife, especially endangered species. Don’t literally encourage bad actors in our environment with public policy. It’s not too much to ask.

I find it ironic that environmental liberals end up arguing with some of the people who enjoy the outdoors most- sportsmen and rural Americans. We all want to enjoy the natural beauty of our land, it’s something we collectively enjoy. We all know that black smoke we see coming out of a coal plant is bad for us, none of us want to breathe that in. We know dumping sludge and chemicals into the water is bad for us all. None of us want to see tigers or any other endangered animal go extinct, they’re magnificent animals to see. Let’s stop doing openly stupid things to hurt our beautiful planet. Once we kill it off, there’s no coming back from that.

It’s Time to Re-Think Who “Won” the Cold War, Civil Rights Movement, and World Wars

It’s 2018, and Germany has a roaring economy, universal health care, and an impressive infrastructure. China is building a world order that doesn’t center around us. France, the United Kingdom, and Canada are adjusting to life without an absolute alliance with us. Russia interfered in our elections, got away with it, and is being rewarded with Presidential summits. We have a President who is a reality TV star, who bankrupted a casino, and who tweets in all caps, LIKE THIS!

You’d have to pardon anyone wondering out loud if the story of American Exceptionalism that came out of the 20th Century was a myth.

While Europe built strong social-safety nets, Asia innovated, and Russia put their energy into mastering the internet, the United States built the largest military industrial complex in the world. While America built up corporate profits, built up a credit bubble, slashed taxes for the wealthy, and increased the income inequality gap, Germany went in the opposite direction, in a span of less than 30 years. While America assumed the success of the 1950’s and 60’s Civil Rights Movement, the electoral polarization that came from it became bad enough that Russia preyed on our racial tensions in interfering with our 2016 elections.

At the end of the 1980’s, the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union was in collapse, and China was “modernizing” their economy towards capitalism. Kids were taught about the progress that had been made by the Civil Rights movement in school. The 1990’s were a period of remarkable, broad-based economic success in America. The United States was considered the world’s greatest military superpower, and used that power and influence in places like the former Yugoslavian republics. We were instrumental in peace agreements in the Middle East, even bringing the Palestinians and Israelis together in the Clinton years. It seemed as though America had defeated the evil of the world, and was creating a peaceful, prosperous world order.

The 21st Century has to make us ask questions- children in cages, Iraq, white nationalists coming out of the shadows, Russian hacking of our elections, mass shootings with no government reaction, Abu Ghraib, tens of millions uninsured, massive student debt, Gitmo, sham summits with foreign dictators, no action on climate change, a massive bank meltdown, and so much more. Is the United States still making progress? Does our federal budget and government match our values? Have we made the right choices on how to spend our dollars? How did we squander the booming economy and budget surpluses we ended the 90’s with? How did we end up with a crumbling infrastructure, school shootings, a health care system that leaves millions behind, no plans for clean energy development and energy independence, white nationalists in the streets, school students testing out rather mediocre against other countries, but the largest military budget in the world, by leaps and bounds?

It is clear now that things were not quite what they once seemed, at least to me. It’s clear to me that our priorities for spending our collective dollars were wrong. It’s clear to me that Germany, who lost both World Wars, is set to be in a much stronger position moving forward than we are, 100 years after World War I. It’s clear to me that China has become far more effective and innovative at solving societal and global issues, without matching us in bombs. It’s clear that 30 years after the Cold War, Russia is effectively meddling in our elections, and causing America to damage itself. It’s clear to me that the successes of the Civil Rights movement have given way to a tyranny of the majority, where resentment and re-segregation is happening both politically and in regular life. It is entirely fair to me that we question how America spent it’s capital, it’s hard-earned global power. Rather than enriching our people, building a strong, stable society, we enriched the few and built a strong country for yester-year. Obviously in the short term, we have to defeat Trump, and get his ilk out of power. In the longer term, we have to reconsider our entire paradigm, ditch our toxically polarized politics, and reconsider the decisions and actions we’ve taken with our great power.

Politics Ain’t Working in America

Sixteen years ago this month I got involved with politics and the Democratic Party. Politics were pretty different then. Republican moderates held more urban seats, and Blue Dog Democrats held rural seats. George W. Bush was reaching out to Latino voters as best he could, and his electoral results showed that it was helpful. Democrats were still competing in Missouri and in the parts of Western Pennsylvania not calling themselves “Pittsburgh.” Wyoming Republican Senator Alan Simpson worked with Democratic President Bill Clinton, while Democratic Senator John Breaux worked with Republican President George W. Bush. I guess I’ve now been involved long enough by age 35 to opine for the old days.

None of that stuff is remotely relevant in 2018. There was no Alan Simpson for Barack Obama, and there sure as hell isn’t a John Breaux for Donald Trump. Frankly, that kind of bi-partisanship gets you primaried out of office in 2018. The interest groups basically run the two parties, which has forced most elected officials into their ideological corners. Gerrymandering and outside money force ideological conformity that didn’t even exist fifteen years ago. Bi-partisanship is essentially dead, not that the era of Donald Trump is really making anyone long for it anyway. Trump’s existence is to troll his opponents, and some of his supporters even will tell you they don’t care if he got Russian help- at least he stopped Hillary. I think most Democrats would tell you we don’t care how we beat him in 2020 either, it’s a moral imperative at this point.

More than anything though, the changes in our politics are about sorting. Democrats have lost almost all of their rural seats in Congress, besides those that are majority-minority, and are essentially an urbanized party now. Save for a few urban enclaves like Staten Island, the Republican Party doesn’t exist at all in urban America. Congressional elections are decided in suburbia now, but neither party’s messaging really reaches them- because most Congressmen represent gerrymandered, base districts, and fear primaries. These voters often find themselves disgusted and disinterested in politics, and end up just voting against one side of the other. The overwhelming majority of districts are decided ahead of time, the other districts are full of disgusted voters, and we wonder why Congress can’t get much done? We used to think we all had the same goals, and different routes there. That’s just not true anymore. The America each side wants is no longer the America the other side wants.

From a political standpoint, we can work around this- the majority rules. Whoever wins the election does what they want and governs for their side. Of course, this constantly leaves the minority party’s voters discontent with America. It leads to fluctuations in policy as Congress and the Presidency go back-and-forth like a yo-yo. A Democratic government passes a comprehensive health care bill in the ACA, and the succeeding Republican Congress and President do everything they can to sabotage that bill. A functional, consistent government that works is nobody’s goal. Achieving ideological victory is the motivator for Congress.

America’s great achievements- the interstate highway system, landing on the moon, Civil Rights legislation, and others- were bi-partisan, collective victories. That seems like pie-in-the-sky now. While I think both sides have become very ideological, I have to say I don’t assign equal blame- today’s Republicans literally questioned Barack Obama’s citizenship, and generally treat Democrats, particularly minorities, as lesser or non-citizens, and question their patriotism. In this kind of environment, things don’t get done. Infrastructure crumbles. Thirty or forty million people don’t get health care. Our students fall to the middle of the pack in education outcomes. A broken immigration system doesn’t get fixed. Our children get mowed down by madmen with machine guns. Common-sense energy policy that protects our environment can’t get passed. Just partisan fixes that favor major funders of the majority party can pass. Problems can’t get solved.

Our constitutional system was not drawn up to deal with a country literally divided along identity lines. Racial, gender, urban vs. rural, education, and other divisions have created a country where we don’t have shared goals. Globalism has moved so many of the good jobs to population clusters, or big cities. Self-sorting among the people has made a situation where most of the Democrats are in the big cities, and most of the Republicans live in exurban or rural areas. Our federal system, particularly the electoral college and Congressional re-districting, gives one side an advantage on the other. In twenty years, half the country will live in eight states. We are heading towards a divided society not unlike those in third world countries, or at the worst case scenario, apartheid-era South Africa. If we continue on this path, Donald Trump may end up being the calm before the actual storm.

How Strong Nations Fall

We all look for distractions from the news these days. For me, I’ve been reading a lot of history, particularly about the fall of great civilizations in the history of the world. How did the Romans fall? The Greeks? The Ottomans? As you read through them, you see some common traits that hold up in many cases. I came up with five that stand out to me, and the scary thing is, they all apply to the United States right now.

  • Over-aggressive militarism. A strong national defense, and willingness to act on the behalf of national values is central to building a great nation. Invading nations for the purpose of conquest, without facing any real threat, as we did in Iraq, doesn’t fit that bill. Filled prisons, police riding down the street in tanks, a domestic violence epidemic, and addicts going to jail, also is being overly militant. Responding to the epidemic of school shootings, a uniquely American event, by calling for the arming of teachers, is overly aggressive militarism. Our society has a violence issue. Our nation has codified much of it in law. This over-reaching militarism can be the death of nations. Hitler’s attempt to invade the Soviet Union, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the British Empire’s expansion to the entire globe, the Romans’ expansion across Europe- all eventually became their undoing.
  • The rise of inept leadership. George W. Bush was in over his head as President. Donald Trump went from bankrupting casinos to the White House. These men are imbeciles and should not have lead free nations. It goes beyond them though. Post-Watergate, and particularly post Cold War, Americans have valued experience less and less in picking their leaders. That’s not such a good thing when you make someone the Commander-in-Chief and Chief Executive Officer of a multi-trillion dollar government. Inept and incapable idiots lead Rome, Greece, Egypt to great falls after their great leaders built them up. It stopped making sense for capable leaders to seek leadership roles, and insecure, uninformed, incapable people sought power instead.
  • Great division over national identity. One of the most understated issues of post-1968 America is the division over who we are. The United States is a multicultural, melting pot nation of immigrants. It has always been so. We take in every religion, every race, every sexuality, every type of person. Unfortunately, the “majority,” or traditional cultural norm, has not handled that well since the great Civil Rights wins of the 1960’s. Even more unfortunately, politicians from Nixon to Trump have cynically embraced those fears and scapegoated the “other.” Hence, we’ve had to debate everything from gay marriage to building a wall on the Mexican Border. Ironically, all of these nonsensical, regressive debates is possible because we live in relative comfort, without current civil violence, starvation, or plague. It’s also possible because Ronald Reagan launched his 1980 Presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, to appeal to open racists, and got a pass for it. Fights over who was a citizen lead Rome to some of their most barbaric acts. Those acts lead to uprising against them.
  • They stop doing great things for their people. What was the greatest achievement of the 20th Century United States? It wasn’t winning the World Wars. Those were necessities, rather than achievements. The interstate highway system. Civil Rights. Putting a man on the Moon. Building suburbia. Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. These are achievements. Our current government doesn’t wish to do great public works- in fact our Speaker and President want to undo social welfare programs in order to transfer more wealth back to the wealthy. This is not a pathway to greatness. We remember the great works of the ancient world- pyramids, the Acropolis, the Colosseum- not the mediocrity that followed.
  • Stability fails. At the end of the Roman Empire, stability failed. They weren’t safe from outside invasion. Their institutions didn’t work. They had rampant public and private corruption. Watch the news tonight and see if you feel much different. Russia is hacking our election system, and power grid. Facebook is selling your data. Every institution from the church to the military has had an embarrassing scandal in recent times. Do you feel like our institutions are protecting you right now.

I’m not saying America will fall, or cease to exist in the near future. I’m saying the essence of our nation, our body politic, is ill. If we don’t make changes on these issues, I don’t think we’ll get better anytime soon.

What I Learned About the GOP War on Government

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I recently finished a stint serving as executive director of a government transition of power in Northampton County, PA. I have lots of campaign experience, but wanted to engage in actually helping build a $400 million government in my community. What I found out was going on in the outgoing Republican Government was absolutely appalling and shocking for me at first, but gradually fell right into line with what I had expected from watching the Republican Party operate in Washington, Harrisburg, and other capitols around the country.

The former Executive in Northampton County had literally balanced his budget for four years on the backs of the needy, the vulnerable, and the employees of the county. He didn’t fill essential positions like Warden at the prison, for months and even years. He was squeezing the county work force for more of what he referred to as “efficiencies,” which just meant more work for less pay. He had corrections officers working overtime regularly. He had problems in both the county’s senior care and the children and youth departments, mostly because they were understaffed. He literally ran the county like a corporation, which is to say he let services suffer in the name of “profits,” which in this case were only the money he was using to balance his budget, and even run a surplus that he wanted to run for re-election on (fortunately, we beat him). What’s worse is that he and his Republican Council went so far as to create “lockbox” accounts to put money in that couldn’t be spent out of without supermajority votes, to further deny services to the public which uses them.

I would like to say here that this is uniquely bad, but it is not. Today I watched Steven Mnuchin say that “blue” states like California and New York should stop trying to find ways around the new tax law’s elimination of the state and local tax deduction, and should instead just cut their budgets and taxes, like other states (i.e.- New York, a successful state, should become Oklahoma now). In this statement, Mnuchin essentially gave away the real game in eliminating the state and local tax deduction federally- to force states that have functioning government services to stop having functioning government services. New Jersey should stop taking care of their poor, their sick, their elderly, and their children, and should instead cut the taxes of millionaires living in Colts Neck.

Speaking of Colts Neck and New Jersey, next week a much larger transition will come to an end, and the Chris Christie nightmare will finally end when Governor-elect Phil Murphy takes the oath of office at the statehouse in Trenton. While this seems like a happy moment, Murphy is taking over a very precarious situation. He was elected promising big improvements for New Jersey. He wants to rebuild the state’s infrastructure, particularly NJ Transit and the proposed new transit tunnel into Manhattan. He wants to fund public schools at higher levels, especially for the poorest districts in the state. He wants to create a state owned bank. He wants to make the state’s payments into the pension fund. He wants to invest in the people of his state, and the combination of Chris Christie and Washington Republicans have made that increasingly hard to do. Christie “reformed” the state’s pension system on the back of the workers, and then simply didn’t make the payments into the fund- then left Murphy with quarterly payments to make, mandated by law. Washington Republicans made it much harder to pass his “millionaire’s tax” to help finance his initiatives by taking away the state and local tax deduction that was critical to New Jerseyans at all income levels. Now Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to go after states that legalize marijuana and tax it, just as New Jersey is considering this as a financing option. The clear signal of national Republicans is that they don’t want Governors doing things in the public interest anymore than they wanted President Obama to do so, and they will throw every barrier they can up in the way, even when the voters want an active government. Of course they and their compatriots in Trenton will now cry foul of Murphy and say New Jersey cannot afford to do the things the public wanted him to do. They made sure of it.

Back here in Northampton County, we found the same crunch coming from Washington Republicans. Our new County Executive’s agenda was rather restrained and modest- fix the problems left for him in senior care and children and youth, increase economic development in the county’s northern rural core, protect the county nursing home, preserve our open green space, return our work force to proper staffing levels, and do so without raising taxes. With existing money and revenue projections moving forward, this was quite possible, before the Washington Republicans pulled off their tax-scam legislation. Due to their cuts to Medicaid, made in the name of “deficit reduction” after they cut the government’s revenue by $1.5 trillion for the next decade, the math got a lot tighter. Medicaid is a huge provider of health insurance for senior citizens (largely because they are on fixed incomes and qualify for it as the supplemental insurance for their Medicare), and Medicaid therefore is a huge piece of the puzzle for the county maintaining their nursing home, a safety net the voters voted to keep by a 75-25% margin in 2011. The cuts to Medicaid are being made to finance tax cuts for the highest tax brackets and corporations, and those cuts jeopardize an essential service of the county, which in turn jeopardizes the ability to do virtually anything else in the agenda the voters voiced support for with 54% of the vote, just this past November 7th.

The United States is a very wealthy nation, a nation that can do far more for it’s people than it is doing now. We don’t have endless reserves of cash to give everyone free everything, but we can certainly provide more and better services that the public says it wants, provided that we prioritize better. The current Republican Party, whether down at your county court house, or bumbling throughout the White House aimlessly right now, is fighting a war to make sure that the government can’t do anything well, or even adequately. These men and women in the GOP are running for office to leave the government impotent and incapable. This is not a disagreement over the scope of government programs and whether or not we should waste money at this point, this is a war against government. We need to engage that war.