Archive for September, 2019

Dan Rather on “What Unites Us”

September 15, 2019

Dan Rather, at 87, is still actively in the news game, running an outfit called “News and Guts.” He appeared recently in Albany, discussing his 2017 book, What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism, with the NY Writers Institute’s Paul Grondahl. The book doesn’t mention Trump.

Rather said he’s an optimist by nature and experience. This, he averred, is not “fuzzy brained” but rooted in a confidence in the American people doing the right thing (after exhausting all the alternatives, Churchill said). But Rather believes it’s something we must do day in and day out. And we are in very perilous times. With certain persons — for ideology or power — seeking to exploit our divisions. We’ve gone far down the road of enabling them.

Rather was asked about parallels to 1960s societal divisions, and Watergate. I remember them well. This is different. Rather noted that the Watergate crimes involved no foreign enemies. Nixon went down because Republicans then still had the integrity and true patriotism to put country above party. And through all the ’60s social turmoil, I never saw so many Americans so impervious as now to facts and reason. Never so many moved by hate.

Rather’s aim is to give us the strength to overcome our divisions by reminding us of certain core values most Americans share:

Rule of law (applied equally to all); one person one vote; leadership in science and discovery; and empathy and compassion.

But this high-minded litany made me queasy because here in fact is the heart of what ails us.

Rule of law? We’ve seen a direct assault upon our key rule-of-law institutions like the FBI, Justice Department, and Judiciary. Crimes dismissed as “hoaxes;” even unambiguous crimes shrugged off; laws twisted to favor the powerful.

One person one vote? Preventing opponents from voting, and gerrymandering to dilute their votes, are integral to the cynical Republican playbook.

Science and discovery? Trump and Republicans are actively anti-science, not just on climate and environmental matters, but a whole range of others. Now even weather forecasting.

Empathy and compassion? Seriously? Treating suffering refugees, especially innocent children (and indeed other disadvantaged people) with a vicious calculated cruelty. Rather spoke of skeptics doubting a nation with our ethnic and cultural diversity could work. For a while it did. But history shows playing on such divisions is playing with fire.

Rather also talked about a free press, crucial to a democratic society; something every tinpot dictator tries to undermine. They kill many courageous journalists. You might think a free press too would be a shared American value. Today, not so much — “the enemy of the people.”

And how about opposing Russian aggression? Not so much either. Not even Russia’s attack on our own society.

Upholding human rights globally? No again. Instead, standing with murderous tyrants.

Just plain truth as a shared value? Twelve thousand documented lies by Trump and counting. A war on the very concept of truth.

Or how about just plain civility and decency? Nope. “Grab them by the pussy.” Here too the standards and norms that used to prevail in American civic life have been shredded.

Far from uniting us, each and every one of the mentioned values are tossed aside by a sizable part of today’s American population. For what? For the sake of some other enduring values? No, instead it’s just for the sake of their tribe winning. And indeed it’s the trashing of those fundamental values that defines their tribe. Blinded by their partisan tribalism.

What’s happening here is mirrored in Britain, whose society and institutions are being torn apart by partisan antagonisms over Brexit.

Rather seems to believe America will somehow right itself. But both here and in Britain, I think the poison will persist for decades.

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Corporate Social Responsibility versus profits

September 12, 2019

For decades it’s been gospel that a corporation’s mission is just to maximize shareholder value. But now a group of over 180 heads of top U.S. companies has met and signed a statement saying they must also serve the interests of employees, customers, suppliers, and the wider society.

Perhaps a response to capitalism being assailed for “putting profits ahead of people,” blamed for growing inequality and environmental problems; some Democratic presidential contenders seem to run more against corporations than Republicans.

“Profit” is a dirty word; often coupled with “obscene.” We’re told X corporation or X industry “sucked” X dollars from the economy, as if the plain numbers bespeak evil. What’s never said is how much (or how little) return on invested capital those profits represent. Who’d invest in a business, with all the risks, without the prospect of a reasonable return?

That’s what creates the cornucopia of goods and services making our lives what they are. And the jobs enabling us to pay for them. Some of my friends fantasize a utopia where we get all that without anyone “sucking” profits. But I don’t see them forgoing earnings on their own industriousness.

Adam Smith made the point in 1776: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” That is, earnings or profits.

Maybe you have a different idea that didn’t occur to Smith — government providing everything. That’s what “socialism” actually means. Like in the USSR — where goods and services were notable for their absence. (People said, “we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.”)

But do businesses in fact garner “obscene” profits? Well, there’s one salient test. I’ve invested in corporate stocks for three decades, and I’ve done nicely, but certainly not obscenely. If corporations were really “sucking” exorbitant returns, we could all easily get rich by buying their stocks. That’s obviously not so.

Which brings us back to the concept of companies existing basically to benefit shareholders. Here are two key points:

First, corporate managers actually work for shareholders, entrusted with a fiduciary duty to serve shareholder interests. Anything they do that’s inconsistent with shareholder interests is an unethical breach of that fundamental duty, an abuse of their trust. Remember too that shareholderincludes pension funds, retirement accounts, university and charity endowments, etc. Earning them a return on their investments is by itself a social good (with no conceivable substitute).

Second, as Adam Smith again showed, the quest for profit benefits society by incentivizing the supplying of things people need or want. When a corporation takes raw materials costing $10, and pays a worker $10 in wages to assemble them into something it can sell for $25, it creates $5 of added societal value. More in fact if you buy it because its value to you exceeds the $25 you pay. While the worker gains as well. So the $5 profit entails something good happening.

This wealth creation is the fundamental logic of free market capitalist economics. Assail capitalism all you like, but this has raised global average real dollar incomes around sixfold in the last century. It wasn’t socialism.

So where does corporate social responsibility, and the recent declaration by all those CEOs, fit in?

It’s lately fashionable to speak of employees, customers, suppliers, and the broader public as a corporation’s “stakeholders” along with shareholders. But this is not a novel or abstruse concept. Rather, it has always held; simply part of the basic understanding we all share as members of a society.

You don’t need a code of “corporate social responsibility” to know that profit maximization doesn’t allow for ripping off customers with shoddy products or failing to pay workers or contractors what they’re due, like Trump. Et cetera. Profit maximizing is always constrained by the universal rules of societal participation. A corporation is in reciprocal relationships with its stakeholders like workers and customers, and such relationships entail responsibilities. Fulfilling them is the necessary premise for being an enterprise operating in a society.

My own business is selling coins. I try to treat my customers according to the golden rule, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but It’s also good for business. And it enables me to gain satisfaction not just from earning profits, but earning them justly. If I had workers, the same would apply. A recent study showed that a firm’s employee satisfaction correlates with its customer satisfaction.

Economist Milton Friedman was the leading voice who saw profit maximizing and a company’s social responsibility as two sides of the same coin. He argued (like Smith) that a business making money does advance the public interest; and also stipulated the assumption that profits are earned legitimately, that is, by creating customer value (and not, for example, by fraud). And, further, that businesses compete.

This is another key concept. It’s competition that holds companies to account. One free from competitive pressures can do whatever it wants. Such untrammeled power is never a good thing. Moreover, free and open competition among businesses ensures that the lion’s share of the value created is reaped by consumers, with profits being only just enough to sustain their operations. Fierce competition forces supermarkets, for example, to set prices to allow a profit of only a few cents on every dollar of sales. So customers actually gain more from supermarkets than their owners do.

Capitalism’s critics say competition is often far from perfect. A big reason for that is actually government intervention, typically at the behest of some powerful corporate interest, seeking to screw competitors. Call this “corporate socialism.”

I always remember one of my first cases as a government regulatory lawyer. My agency went after a small upstart moving company for breaking the rules. Its crime? Rates too low! Who were we protecting? Certainly not the public. Rather, the established movers who hated competition.

Religion and voting

September 9, 2019

Trump was elected by a minority, with three million fewer votes than Clinton. But hardly over half of those eligible voted; so Trump was elected by only about a quarter. And those who did vote were not even a representative sample of the electorate.

They were older than average (younger people are far less likely to vote). And they were more religious.

America is actually growing less religious, though you wouldn’t know it from politics — because of religious voters’ inflated electoral clout. Those answering “none” when asked their religion now actually outnumber evangelical Christians. The latter have shriveled to just 15% of America’s population. But because they almost all vote, they were 26% of the 2018 electorate. Whereas the nonreligious are now a quarter of the population, but were only 17% of 2018 voters.

And while evangelicals are only 26% of the electorate, they overwhelmingly back Republicans, thus constituting half the Republican vote. So Republicans kowtow to evangelicals.

It’s younger people in particular who are losing religion. Back when practically everybody was a believer, nonconformism didn’t even seem like an option. But once nonbelief reached a certain threshold, then it did begin to look like a real alternative. And a very attractive one given all the ways religious belief defies rationality. Humans aren’t perfectly rational, but nor are they impervious to rationality.

This has played out much more fully in most modern European nations. Once the mystique of religion was pierced, with emergence of a critical mass of nonbelief, the bottom fell out. In America, however, the First Amendment and separation of church and state created a more vibrant religious landscape, attracting congregants in ways that stodgy old European churches failed to do.

But meantime, American religion has actually grown more extreme, with higher proportions of Christians being evangelicals and biblical literalists, thus less credible to thoughtful people. Furthermore, Christianity’s blatant politicization soils its image — especially when mobilized on behalf of policies that make a mockery of Christ’s teachings, and a leader who is a vile creep. Rendering evangelicals’ moralistic posturing a ludicrous travesty.*

For older people, extricating themselves from religion can be a wrenching struggle, shaping their personal identity. Younger people often don’t experience that, because religion never resonated with them to begin with. And just as they increasingly disengage from the whole religion thing, they also often disengage from politics and the public square. It just doesn’t interest them. The disappearance of civics education is likely a factor, but it seems a broader cultural phenomenon. Voting is not something their peer groups do; no cachet of coolness. It’s a form of communal participation that lacks meaning for them. There’s also the nastiness and conflict of today’s politics, which is a turn-off. And nonvoting is easy to rationalize — balancing the time and hassle of voting against the virtual certainty that a single vote won’t change anything.

I vote not because I imagine it will change the outcome, but rather precisely because it does represent civic engagement. It’s the one sacrament I perform.

Not long ago I’d have said the disengagement by others actually reflects something positive — politics seen as not mattering much to people’s lives. A welcome development after centuries in which it mattered too much, with much at stake. Our society having settled down into an equilibrium where political differences fell into what was really, in the big picture, a narrow range, and it didn’t matter that much which party won. “Politicians are all alike” did have a kernel of truth.

Hence many were lulled into a mindset of being freed to ignore politics. Unfortunately that has changed, but many younger people haven’t gotten the memo. Many don’t seem to grasp how profoundly Trump is transforming America, altering the core of what this nation is all about. Then again, too few Americans still understand that story itself any more.

Russia’s factually proven 2016 election subversion included pushing the meme — especially to blacks and younger people — that voting is a sham, a waste of time, meaningless, all politicians are bad, and even that non-voting is somehow the right thing to do, to “protest” a corrupt system. Yet another effort to suppress the Democratic vote.** Russians, and other pro-Trump forces, will surely try this again in 2020, if anything more aggressively. We must not let this insidious ploy succeed.

* Trump wants to end restrictions on tax-exempt churches endorsing candidates. I say let them shackle themselves to Republican corruption and sink together.

** Blacks were targeted with messages falsely guiding them to vote online — or even the day after the election.

Norman Rockwell’s America

September 6, 2019

On Labor Day we visited the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA. Rockwell was an “illustrator” who disclaimed producing “fine art.” And some see his oeuvre as a mythologized, sanitized, saccharine picture of a past America.

Yet what is art if not an image that elicits an emotional response? And Rockwell’s pictures are not false. To the contrary, they show us some truths about human life. While cynicism is fashionable, there is reality in Rockwell’s vision. His work reflects a deep love for his fellow humans. And an emotional response was certainly forthcoming in me.

Rockwell (1894-1978) had a long prolific career, starting professionally in his teens; over nearly half a century he produced around 300 Saturday Evening Post magazine covers. Seeing the entire sequence, all in frames in one room, was almost dumbfounding, considering how much meticulous care went into each. Many were preceded by full charcoal drafts (also displayed), and fastidiously reworked.

Looking closely, I was struck by how insightfully Rockwell captured facial expressions. His pictures were generally set-pieces almost akin to cartoons. Yet the characters portrayed were not caricatures or archetypes; rather, real people, caught in real moments. I soon found myself looking at fellow museum visitors and imagining them as painted by Rockwell.

My all-time favorite painting was not there, traveling temporarily elsewhere: Freedom of Speech, one of his WWII “Four Freedoms” pictures. But the museum did display a large wartime poster of it. It depicts a real episode Rockwell witnessed (he’s in the picture, peeking out in the upper left corner). The main figure, a very ordinary everyman, rose in a town meeting to speak against a measure most others favored. Yet they gave him a respectful hearing. A lesson for today.

There was also Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter. Not the familiar image; one I’d somehow never seen before. And no typical portrayal of womanhood. This is one tough babe. A real riveter. (The pose is an exact homage to a figure from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. And her foot’s on Mein Kampf.)

And about that idea of a sanitized America: I noticed an explanatory label mentioning that Rockwell was once forced to paint out an African-American on a magazine cover because you could only portray blacks in menial roles. However, later in his career, Rockwell felt free to be forthright in addressing the race issue in his paintings. “New Kids in the Neighborhood” depicts a couple of young black children, just arrived, warily confronting a trio of white kids. The gap between them is wide — literally. But both sides hold baseball gloves, and you have the sense that it’s going to be all right.

One point I noticed is that Rockwell’s black children were always immaculately dressed: painted with respect.

Then there’s his iconic picture, “The Problem We All Live With.” This too was out traveling, but on a large reproduction I noticed a detail I strangely didn’t remember: the word chalked on the wall.

Afterward, in Stockbridge, we stumbled upon the little Schantz Galleries (3 Elm Street, “behind the bank,” the sign says). The ground floor had a display of Chihuly glass art. Nice enough; but upstairs: WOW! Also all glass art, but absolutely amazing. Remarkably too, by a large number of different artists.

Modern art too often actually rejects any ethos of beauty. Not so here. The sheer aesthetic beauty of these pieces was breathtaking. It was hard to believe human beings could create such wondrous things.

Making me feel exalted to be human.

A vision for America

September 2, 2019

Trump has a vision of America. It says the real Americans have been under assault — economically and, mainly, culturally — by “others.” From outside, and from within. That there was some halcyon greatness lost. Mainly, frankly, it was whiteness. It’s white supremacy in all but name.

This vision, David Brooks has written, “contradicts the traditional American idea in every particular. In fact, Trump’s national story is much closer to the Russian national story . . . an alien ideology he’s trying to plant on our soil. Trump’s vision is radically anti-American.”

It opposes a vision rooted in our founding ideals. “American exceptionalism” is a contentious phrase. But America is indeed unique among nations in being constituted on a set of ideals rather than on blood-and-soil.

They’re embodied in the Declaration of Independence. Which, remember, was addressed to the world. Because our founders saw this nation as forging a new path for all humanity into a brighter future. They were looking forward — not backward to make something “great again.”

What were those ideals? Democratic self-government, all people being equal in their freedom to pursue happiness, and in their diversity all coming together to build our city upon a hill. As expressed too in our national motto — e pluribus unum — out of many, one. An ideal of openness and generosity.

The Declaration said “all men,” not all people, but that’s what was meant. And meant fully and sincerely, despite some writers being slaveowners. No humans could have transcended all the bounds of their time and world all in one leap. Yet their leap was great indeed.

It did transcend their consanguinity, in their recognition that the nation they launched would grow beyond it. One of the Declaration’s stated grievances against the British was their impeding the naturalization of newcomers to America!

So theirs was indeed a vision for the future. And the America they set in motion did, through the years, ever more fully come to realize their vision. To realize its motto. Uniquely a magnet for people coming from all over to enrich this nation with all their variety.

Brooks again: “This American idea is not a resentful prejudice; it’s a faith and a dream.” And Trump’s vision, he says, “is an attack on that dream.”

This is our choice, standing at an epochal historical crossroads. Will we follow Trump’s dark path — leading to everything our founders actually rebelled against? Or resume our journey along the brighter path they marked out?

But how many Americans today still see that path? Have that vision in their hearts?

Brooks ends by quoting the black poet Langston Hughes, writing at a time when the Declaration’s equality was much further from fulfillment:

America never was America to me

And yet I swear this oath

America will be!