Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Political Corruption: America versus China

February 22, 2015

UnknownThe chief corruption in American politics is the need to raise large sums for campaigns, the money coming heavily from interests wanting something. In effect it’s bribery, though politicians don’t (normally) get rich from it; what they get is re-elected.*

(New York is something of an exception. In 2012 I wrote about disgraceful State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Update: Silver was recently arrested by the Feds for millions in bribes and kickbacks disguised as legal fees. After initially rallying behind him, Assembly Democrats turned on him, and Silver was forced out as speaker.)

China, if you can believe it, is even worse than New York. While it’s often noted that our Congress is peopled by millionaires, the average wealth in China’s equivalent body (which has much less power) is vastly greater, it’s stuffed with billionaires. And whereas American legislators typically earned their affluence outside of politics, that’s not true in China. Being a bigwig in Chinese politics is a license to steal. And everything in China is outsized, including the corruption.

Bo Xilai

Bo Xilai

The country being so important, you’d think headline Chinese corruption scandals would get significant attention in U.S. media. They don’t. Not long ago Bo Xilai, boss of Chongqing, was a major figure in Chinese politics. Then he fell spectacularly, he and his wife charged with not only corruption but murder, both getting long prison terms.

An even bigger fish (or “tiger” in Chinese parlance) was Zhou Yongkang, at the center of power, controlling China’s oppressive national security apparatus.

Zhou Yongkang

Zhou Yongkang

He was China’s Beria. Now he too has fallen, blackened in China’s media as (to quote The Economist) “a thief, a bully, a philanderer and a traitor . . . the spider at the center of a web of corrupt patronage, he enriched himself, his family, his many mistresses and his cronies at vast cost to the government.”

Chinese might ask how such a villain could have gained so much authority. And while his downfall might be seen as “the system working,” the real story – as in Bo Xilai’s case – was power politics. This is the kabuki of top-level Chinese politics – since rule is by a sort of divine right (“the mandate of Heaven”), a man can be shorn of power only by voiding his divine right, by making a criminal of him. As if the other guys are different.

Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping

The Zhou Yongkang case ostensibly reflects President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. While Xi does seem to recognize what a problem corruption is, the fact remains that the prosecutions are mainly political – getting rid of functionaries who aren’t Xi’s sycophants. He’s also been talking “rule of law,” but understands it differently than we do – rule by law, i.e., rulers’ commands, another tool for waging politics. The party, and its top dogs, are still above the law. Indeed, in China there’s really no “law” to be above.

Further, the regime is wrestling with the related concept of “constitutionalism.” China does have a constitution, which says a lot of good things. But the leaders don’t actually accept that the constitution should, even in theory, be followed. That idea is seen as “Western,” and people have been jailed merely for saying the constitution should be obeyed.

China’s apologists like to point out that Western democracies are not immune from corruption and abuses of power, citing Watergate as a premier example. But (as The Economist noted), Nixon fell because of checks and balances within the American political system – including, crucially, a free press. images-2Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang instead fell to the power of an even bigger fish. Who will constrain his power?

(And don’t even get me started on the profound, vicious, all-encompassing corruption in Putin’s Russia, where the government is simply a criminal enterprise.)

* We often hear about “buying elections.” Can’t be done. While money does get your message heard, high-spending candidates regularly nevertheless lose.

Stop the Hate Speech

January 29, 2015

American political discourse “is ugly, as civility has been replaced by bitter reactive battles,” laments Michael Werner in a recent issue of The Humanist magazine. Then he says, “we have to expose the hidden racism that permeates political discourse.” And later he queries how we can “bend the needle towards mutual understanding.”

UnknownHere’s a suggestion: stop calling people racists.

Our politics has indeed been poisoned by zealots seeing opponents as not just wrong but wicked. Both sides are guilty – but the left far more than the right. The same issue of The Humanist also had an excerpt from David Niose’s book on how to combat the right. Typically, like authors Thomas Frank and George Lakoff, whose books I’ve reviewed, Niose sees the political right as basically just shilling for, and manipulated by, “corporate interests.” Lakoff actually believes corporate profits are what conservatives mainly care about. Frank thinks they want the poor kept poor; indeed, want more people poor. And Niose, like Michael Werner, plays the race card: he calls racism the “underlying catalyst” and “at the roots” of modern American conservatism.

I’ve noted lab experiments showing most people unconsciously do react to racial cues. imagesHowever, call me starry-eyed, but the vast majority of Americans, in their conscious minds and hearts, harbor racial goodwill. Those who do not – the real racists – are a small minority of losers at the margins of society. To throw around phrases like “hidden racism that permeates political discourse,” or to tar the political leanings of half the country as rooted in racism, is irresponsible smear-mongering. It’s hate speech.*

Speaking of which, Paul Rapp is a lawyer and columnist for a local alternative newspaper.

Lying, pathetic, pandering, etc. . . and of course racist?

Lying, pathetic, pandering, etc. . . and of course racist?

Writing about “net neutrality,” which Senator Cruz (I’m no fan) called the “Obamacare of the Internet,” Rapp said this “reveals Ted Cruz as a lying, pathetic, pandering, cowardly, racist, fascist little douchebag, an embarrassment to us all.” More recently Rapp labeled John McCain a “doddering old traitor.” (Who’s the embarrassment?)

I don’t consider myself “conservative” or “on the right” in today’s American political taxonomy. But I think I understand that viewpoint. Whereas its popularity flummoxes writers like Frank, Lakoff, and Niose. Were conservatism truly the stinkpot they imagine, its political success might indeed be baffling. However, these guys are clueless about what really makes conservatives tick; they’re blinded by their stereotyping, demonizing caricatures.

Unknown-1A better understanding is found in Jonathan Haidt’s excellent book, The Righteous Mind. His analysis shows conservatives aren’t less moralistic than liberals; in fact, they use a larger moral palette. Tellingly, Haidt reports on questionnaire studies, where liberals were instructed to answer as though they were conservatives, and vice versa. Conservatives did quite well at predicting liberal responses; but liberals failed miserably at guessing what conservatives would say. images-1That’s because they really do see conservatives as grotesquely uncaring and selfish. They can’t seem to imagine that maybe, just maybe, the political right is motivated not by racism, or greed, or “corporate interests,” but, rather, sincere beliefs about what is truly best for all of society.

* We’re told relentlessly that opposition to Obama is, at its core, all about his race. Would a white Democrat with the same policies have gotten less pushback? Was the left’s hatred for Bush 43 any less intense than the right’s for Obama?

Great News: Sri Lanka Blows Off Authoritarianism

January 15, 2015
Rajapaksa

Rajapaksa

I have written before about Sri Lanka’s vile President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Yet another example of how power corrupts. Together with his band of brothers he was well along toward thoroughly undoing Sri Lanka’s democracy, and establishing a repressive authoritarian regime. The Rajapaksa boys were using the time-honored method of crushing any opposition or dissent through every means possible ranging from abuse of legal process to outright murder.

Last time, the big hero of Sri Lanka’s recent civil war tried to run against Rajapaksa, but was easily seen off and jailed for his trouble. Rajapaksa must have been pretty cocky because he decided to advance the next election by two years; no credible opponent was on the horizon, and Rajapaksa, controlling the vast resources of the government to propagandize, did seem impregnable.

But then his former health minister, Maithripala Sirisena, defected to run against him, on a shoestring. And – despite the incumbent’s overwhelming advantages – a huge shocker, Rajapaksa was beaten by a margin sufficiently decisive that he didn’t even try to tough it out.

Sirisena

Sirisena

Sirisena says that what Sri Lanka needs is “not a king, but a real human being.” Taking office quickly, he’s already dismantling some of Rajapaksa’s instrumentalities of repression, like blocked websites, and surveillance. Rajapaksa looks likely to be prosecuted now for his abuses, and headed for prison.

This is an absolutely thrilling thing. I’m reminded of Lincoln’s famous line that you can’t fool all the people all the time. Despite the intensive propagandizing by the Rajapaksa regime, the Sri Lankans – at least a majority – could see through it, and were smart enough to reject it. So much for the oft-invoked conventional wisdom that Asians are somehow culturally comfortable with authoritarianism.

Of course history never runs neatly, and things may well get messy in Sri Lanka. But the big fact is that its democracy has now been rescued, by its citizens, from a grave threat. People do understand the value of a democratic society, and will act on that understanding. This was a good day for optimists, and a bad one for cynics.

imagesMaybe Francis Fukuyama was right after all.

Mario Cuomo and Bess Myerson

January 6, 2015

imagesMy view of Mario Cuomo was not colored by his having knocked me publicly.

I was a PSC administrative law judge, presiding over a case involving Long Island’s Shoreham nuclear power plant – at the time, a huge issue. Governor Cuomo was hostile to the plant and its utility builder. One day when I came to work, people made remarks like, “Hey Frank, how are your credentials?” I was mystified, until I saw a news report: asked at a press conference about one of my recommendations (contrary to his position), Cuomo dismissed it, saying, “Well, what are his credentials?”

images-2Shoreham fell victim to a safety hysteria. There was no undue risk, in relation to all the normal risks of modern life. But “nuclear” is a scare word, and opponents thought it reasonable to insist on literally zero risk (even those traveling to hearings by car, a technology with risks far above zero). The Cuomo administration aligned with those opponents and spearheaded a settlement to junk the nearly completed $5 billion project. The PSC had to approve this, and I was again the judge. I recommended against the settlement. At the Commission’s meeting I was given no speaking role – highly unusual. And my report was not made public, also highly unusual. However, one Commissioner cheekily appended it to his dissent. And PSC Chairman Bradford later told me he’d welcomed my recommendation – it gave the proceedings a veneer of objectivity!

images-3Later, one early evening I was driving not far from the Executive Mansion and ahead of me saw a man who seemed to be wandering aimlessly in the middle of the road. I thought he was drunk, and had to slow to avoid hitting him. As I passed, I recognized the Governor.

Recently I had occasion to comment on Cuomo’s most famous speech, the 1984 “tale of two cities.” UnknownI thought it was an unfair attack on President Reagan, as though he, and Republicans in general, were blind to those Americans having a tough time. Admittedly, Republicans do a good job opening themselves up to such jabs. I don’t understand how Democrats get away with posturing as the tribunes of the common man, when their policies are actually ruinous for the country as a whole. (Trade protectionism is a prime example: protecting the few at the expense of the many.)

But Cuomo’s 1984 speech made him a great liberal hero, so that 30 years later, the local paper and NPR station gave his death massive fawning coverage. I wonder whether his successor George Pataki, who served an equal three gubernatorial terms, will get anything remotely comparable.

I will say this about Mario Cuomo: he was an honorable politician, a mensch, a man of true substance, who played it straight. His son, not so much.

images-4Bess Myerson’s link with Cuomo was her being a big pal of Ed Koch, whom Cuomo beat for Governor. She was the first – and so far only – Jewish Miss America – before I was born, in 1945. Her ethnicity was actually very controversial then – how far we’ve come since! Unlike Cuomo, she died in obscurity, so much so that her December 14 death wasn’t even reported till January 5.

Unknown-1I had a Bess Myerson moment too. In the ‘70s she was New York City Consumer Affairs Commissioner; I met her when she testified at a PSC hearing. A recess found me in a side-room talking on the telephone. Myerson walked in and said to me, “Is that phone working?”

My So-Called Political Career – Rage Against the Machine

December 20, 2014

UnknownWhen young, I was mad for politics; active in both campus and local Republican politics in Queens, NY – generally playing the outsider-provocateur-clown. Yet I dreamed of a serious political career.

Arriving in Albany in 1970, I became a committeeman and ward leader’s sidekick. Albany was ruled by the famous old O’Connell Machine (in ’73 I authored a book about it). No city Republican had won an election since 1921; but a newly combative county chairman, Joe Frangella, was trying. My own ward, full of students, state workers, and yuppies, was the hotbed of machine opposition. This wasn’t just politics, but a moral crusade.

Unknown-1In 1972 our ward leader quit and wanted me as successor. The county chiefs had their own candidate, and sent three stooges to our meeting to browbeat us. Bridling against this, the committeemen unanimously elected me. No longer the clown – now the other guys were.

But my initiation was harrowing. First walking the circuit of my eight polling stations was to go from one fight to another. Each had two election inspectors from each party, yet the Democrats hogged all the chairmanships (which should have been decided by coin tosses). These intimidating tyrants let their committeemen get away with nonsense like “assisting” voters inside the booth.Unknown

I needed better election workers – and set about recruiting anti-machine reform Democrats. Yes, they could legally serve as Republican inspectors. I drilled them to be more assertive, especially about those chairmanships. And when next I walked that circuit, all was calm – with Republican chairmen in seven of eight districts! We might not win elections, but we’d won a big battle over their conduct.

In 1973, I was responsible for my ward’s candidates for alderman and county legislator. For the latter I recruited a presentable-seeming preppy fellow. A reform Democrat was running for alderman, a woman I knew; I made a deal to back her while she’d back my legislature candidate. Which she didn’t really do; she was a flake; and relations with my own guy soured when he bizarrely accused me of touching his repellent wife. Anyhow, both lost. So did our mayoral candidate, in a close race.

Rezsin Adams (2007)

Rezsin Adams (2007)

In 1975, another county legislator election. The machine put up a nothingburger. I found a great candidate: community activist Rezsin Adams. But most of her left-wing Dem pals wanted nothing to do with Republicans, while the GOP hierarchy gave me hell over allying with any Democrats. However, I had the backing of City Chairman Fred Hershey, and we did finally manage to maneuver Rezsin onto the ballot as a Republican. I worked my heart out to get her elected.

Meantime, city Republicans were chafing under feudal treatment by the county leadership. At a ward leader meeting, I mused that we could ignore the nominating petitions sent from the county and put up our own slate of party functionaries.

images-2So we did – a primary fight. Tense negotiations ensued; I and others met with Frangella, and got agreement for more city autonomy, including choosing our own city chairman. But I couldn’t persuade my colleagues to withdraw the primary slate, so I actually wound up voting against the candidates whose run I myself had instigated.

Also in 1975, Albany’s first county executive was elected. We had another great candidate, Theresa Cooke, an intrepid crusader, our Joan of Arc, who’d just been elected county treasurer. Unknown-3But due to some petty spat about her running mate, Republicans stupidly put up a third candidate instead. That killed the GOP as an effective force in Albany county. With the anti-machine vote split, the Democrat won. (He later went to prison.)

Rezsin Adams lost too. And so did I, as a sacrificial candidate for city court judge.

Then to replace Fred Hershey as city chairman, the county sachems decided on Andy Capoccia, a reptilian opportunist. Frangella was also now gone, along with his pledge about picking our own chairman. At the big 1976 county meeting, Capoccia’s annointment should have been a formality, but I got up and cheekily nominated someone else. Unknown-4When, in my speech, I mentioned Theresa Cooke, her name was booed. Ouch. Of course Capoccia won. (He later went to prison.)

So I was back to being the outsider provocateur. I was disillusioned that the Republican party didn’t appreciate me. In truth, while my academic knowledge of politics was legion, I had no aptitude for its human relations aspect. I resigned, my political career over at age 28. It had been quite a ride. (At least I didn’t go to prison.)

A few years later, I moved to a different ward, and some GOP leading lights actually begged me to run there against one of the machine’s major slimeballs. Winning might not have been impossible. But after careful thought, I declined. I guess I was now cured.

The political machine eventually faded away. But to this day, no Republican has won any election in the city.

How Not to Save the Planet – Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything”

November 27, 2014

imagesGlobalization. Trade. Market Economics. Capitalism. Corporations. Economic growth. Writer Naomi Klein hates it all. Her book, This Changes Everything, argues that global warming’s terrible effects require junking that “neoliberalism,” for a different and more humane economic model. What, exactly? Don’t know.

Kleinites think globalization, trade, and capitalism worsen poverty and inequality. That’s just as factually wrong as climate change denialism. UnknownIn the previous century – despite all its upheavals, the Depression, world wars, Russian and Chinese craziness – worldwide average real dollar incomes rose five-fold – 500%. The average person wound up five times better off than at the start. Poverty ranks plummeted. That didn’t happen through socialism.

Klein believes the only thing trade, capitalism, and “extractive” industries produce is profit – the only reason they exist. It’s just “greed.” There’s no recognition that industry produces stuff people want. Fossil fuel extraction is profitable because it creates energy we need and use (which Klein hates too).

images-1She demonizes free trade without understanding it. Yes, it does make some people richer – a lot of people. Trade happens only when both sides benefit. That spreads prosperity. Freer trade enables poor people in developing countries to sell their products in richer ones. Protectionism keeps them out – and poor. So does “buy local.”

Partly, Klein hates trade because of what’s traded – our “wasteful, materialist, consumerist lifestyle.” (“Consumerism” is buying something someone else disapproves.) Consumerism, extractivism, and economic growth are what cause climate change. We’ve heedlessly raped the planet, and global warming is our “comeuppance.” We’ll be cooked, and drowned by rising seas, unless we stop making electricity with fossil fuels, driving gasoline cars, flying planes, etc. Unknown-1The political right, Klein says, realizes this, and hence rejects climate change science because it blows up their ideology of market economics and unrestrained capitalism. (While Klein loves climate change because it feeds her ideology of blowing up market economics and capitalism.)

Yet science tells us that blowing them up won’t halt climate change. If tomorrow we stopped everything – cut carbon emissions to zero – global warming would continue, only slightly slower than if we do nothing. Klein acknowledges this.

So does she welcome other approaches? No. Klein sees any answer that smacks of technology as just “doubling down” on what got us into trouble in the first place –  like geo-engineering to remove carbon from the atmosphere, or cool the planet by blocking some sun radiation. images-2Replacing fossil fuel power generation with nuclear? That’s so capitalist/industrialist. And if global warming will hamper food production, how about genetic modification techniques that boost crop yields? GAAAA!

While bashing right-wing science denialism, Klein does acknowledge denialism on the left – mentioning the anti-vaccine movement – but denies the science telling us genetic modification is safe and beneficial. And nuclear energy is such an obvious no-brainer in terms of climate impact that many greens are finally embracing it. Klein is actually somewhat persuasive that geo-engineering is problematical, but urges banning further research. Who’s anti-science?

Further, if climate change will mean big trouble, wouldn’t having more money to deal with it help? But Klein hates economic growth, writing zingers like, “having more money won’t help you if your city is under water.”

Unknown-3Ha ha. Well, actually, it would. In fact, Klein bemoans that richer people can escape warming’s ill-effects. The Netherlands has already started raising buildings in anticipation of higher sea levels. Such efforts are costly, and Klein foresees trillions needed. Without economic growth, where will the money come from? Simple: guilty energy companies must pay. But she also says they should be stopped from drilling – so their trillions in future earnings won’t exist.

Klein’s hatred of economic growth (shared by climate zealot Bill McKibben) is also bizarre in light of their anguishing about inequality, poverty, and human deprivation. Growth does make the rich richer, but makes the poor richer too. How can they expect to beat poverty without a bigger economic pie? Just by redistribution? Seriously? With a billion or so people still living on less than $1 a day, I have no patience for those with cushy lives who superciliously call for ending economic growth. (And they are the ones charging capitalists with callousness.)

images-3While Klein wants to dismantle “the system,” her alternative is never clear. But it is clear that stopping the industrial market economy and consumerism would (far from her dream of ending inequality) drastically shrink the economic pie, creating mass unemployment and impoverishment. Klein fantasizes that unemployment would actually be solved with all the new clean energy jobs. How those jobs would be supported, without a consumer economy, is a mystery.

By the way, poorer people tend to have more children – and higher populations are bad for the environment and climate.

Klein faults most environmentalists for misleading people that some modest lifestyle tweaks will suffice. But, reviewing the book, science writer Elizabeth Kolbert (though generally sympathetic) says Klein peddles a similar “fable” in failing to explain just how much energy consumption and consumer spending would have to be cut. images-4Kolbert references a Swiss study predicated on a target “2000 watt society.” Americans currently use 12,000. The only hypothetical person in the study under 2,000 was a woman living in a retirement home with no TV or computer, traveling only rarely, by train.

So Klein’s program is really to give up modern life; while she vilifies politico/economic “austerity” policies, the austerity she herself advocates is far more draconian. What writers like her (and James Howard Kunstler) seem to want is everyone living on small farms, growing their own food, eschewing manufactured goods, and riding bicycles. Probably 80% of today’s Americans would literally die. Pre-industrial farm life was no bucolic paradise.

But in the end, Klein recognizes that de-growth is just not plausible, perhaps even “genocidal.” Yet still she envisions mass movement resistance overthrowing capitalism and extractivism, in favor of what she finally calls “regeneration.” Kolbert calls it “a concept so fuzzy” she “won’t even attempt to explain.” But she quotes Klein: “we become full participants in the process of maximizing life’s creativity.”

That sounds nice.

images-6We have not heedlessly or foolishly raped the planet. Extracting and using energy was necessary for lifting billions out of squalor into decent lives, and still is. There’s no free lunch. Everything has a cost; economic growth does degrade the environment and climate. We will deal with that. Economic growth will help us do so – making life better in spite of warming.

Boy, Was I Wrong – Nonvoters Rule!

November 18, 2014

Before the election, I said “Obama might be forced to get serious about accommodation with Republicans, on such urgent issues as tax reform and immigration, to avoid his second term being even more conspicuously a failure than it already is.”

I should have known better.

UnknownIn his news conference, the President refused to acknowledge the obvious, that Republicans won not due to their popularity, but his unpopularity. Instead, he said, what voters really showed is that they want both parties to get stuff done. Then he proceeded to do all he could to make that impossible.

This is the hallmark of Obama’s presidency, beginning with his first campaign promising some sort of post-partisan politics with old divisions put aside; then even before taking office, closing Republicans out of his putative love-in.

Unknown-1And so it continues. What Obama really means by working together is Republicans just giving in to him. His news conference resembled the bumper sticker, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” Just substitute “I” for “God.”

So, after over three years of slow-walking the Keystone XL pipeline, conducting reviews, reviews of reviews, and reviews of those reviews, paralyzed between economic benefits and the environmentalist scolds in his base, Obama finally seems set to coddle them and veto it.

Unknown-2The re-re-reviews have shown no material environmental problem, with the economics clearly favorable. Obama could, perfectly reasonably, give Republicans at least this one thing. But no. Instead, with dubious justification on the merits, he must stick his thumb in their eye.

Likewise with immigration. I actually favor the measures Obama is readying. But doing it by executive order is the political equivalent of suicide bombing. It is simply declaring war against the Republicans – when they’ve just decisively won an election* and will control both houses of Congress. Obama’s action (subject to reversal by a future president) will kill hopes for a permanent legislative solution, which might otherwise have been promising. (And, while perhaps not palpably unconstitutional, such a far-reaching policy initiative without congressional consultation savages the spirit of our republican system.) This will furthermore poison the air for cooperation on any other issues.

Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson says Obama’s action will bring about exactly what voters hate: “overreach, backlash, deadlock, threats and lasting bitterness.” (Just like with Obamacare.)

Unknown-3

Meantime, Obama and Democrats are whining that the election results shouldn’t much count because of all the non-voters who would have voted Democratic. Of course, it’s chutzpah to presume how they would have voted; paternalistically taking people for granted. Dems made gigantic efforts to get their (presumed) supporters to turn out. But many didn’t turn out because they weren’t turned on, by what Democrats were selling. That resounding silence of voters Dems thought were theirs ought to tell the party something. imagesInstead, they continue to act as though these voters belong to them, even though the voters withheld their votes. In a sense they were voting by not voting, conveying a message Obama and Democrats refuse to hear.

Anyhow, in our democratic country, voters rule. Not non-voters.

* Far more so than the supposedly “decisive” 2012 result which, in fact, was just 51% for Obama, with a bunch of key states won by razor-thin margins.

Midterms, Obamasis, and Cuomosis

November 3, 2014

UnknownTomorrow is Election Day. Republicans may well take the Senate, mainly because President Obama is so unpopular. That unpopularity, unfortunately, is justified. He is extremely cerebral, but it seems to make him smugly feel he needn’t bother to actually assert leadership. As Leon Panetta, his former Defense Secretary, writes in a new book, Obama has trouble making decisions, let alone gutsy decisions. And he wants to have everything both ways – as with his declaration of war against the Islamic State – without actually fighting a war, in a conventional sense. Aiming to have the best of both worlds – victory without blood – we’ll likely end up with the worst of both – blood without victory.

This is only the latest symptom of Obamasis. The first was to blow off the recommendations of his own Simpson-Bowles commission. That’s not some arcane inside-the-beltway matter. It was probably our last best chance to avoid long run fiscal disaster. Don’t be lulled by transitory deficit declines. A growing imbalance between Americans productively employed and those collecting various benefits puts us on an unsustainable path.

Unknown-1Another, of course, was Obama’s drawing a “red line” on Syrian chemical weapons use, and then making a fool of himself when it was crossed – shredding America’s international credibility.

As Panetta’s book elucidates, while of course one must carefully weigh the consequences (and unintended consequences) of action, inaction equally has consequences.

Unknown-2Meantime, as my blog readers know, I’m no great fan of today’s Republicans. One particularly ugly thrust of theirs is voter suppression – making it harder for disadvantaged citizens (assumed to favor Democrats) to vote, through restrictive ID requirements and the like – on the blatantly phony pretext of preventing (almost nonexistent) voter fraud. I wish Republicans would think harder about how to attract voters than blocking them. This is not a strategy that befits a serious political party.

The conventional wisdom (on the left, anyway) says that a Republican Senate would just worsen gridlock. But I doubt this. No longer could Harry Reid be blamed for political paralysis. Obama might be forced to get serious about accommodation with Republicans, on such urgent issues as tax reform and immigration, to avoid his second term being even more conspicuously a failure than it already is. And if Republicans hope to win the White House, they might seek to avoid an image as masters of dysfunction.

A word about the campaign. With much of the electorate divided between immovable partisans, close elections come down to battles over the others, who tend to be much less politically sophisticated; resulting in campaigns, via TV ads, that insult intelligence and demean our democracy.

Unknown-3Everyone decries negative ads, but virtually all candidates (in contested races) use them, because they work. And the standard for what they feel they can get away with, in abusing truth, continues to fall, a real race to the bottom. Ohio actually passed a law banning inaccurate political ads, which was overturned in the courts – thankfully – I take a dim view of any governmental regulation of political advocacy. But I would like to see some public service announcements, on billboards, buses, and the airwaves, something like this:

VOTERS BEWARE! TV ADS SLAMMING POLITICAL CANDIDATES ARE OFTEN VERY MISLEADING! THERE ARE TWO SIDES TO EVERY STORY!

Unknown-4Here in New York, exactly as I predicted, our loathesome Governor Cuomo has blanketed the state with ads smearing his opponent, Rob Astorino. Also as I predicted, the New York Times and Albany Times-Union, despite previously excoriating Cuomo, held their noses and endorsed him, being congenitally incapable of backing a Republican. For my case against Cuomo, see my 9/7 blog post.*

The T-U did at least urge a “no” vote on the phony redistricting “reform” on the ballot; though while lamenting Governor Cuomo’s “settling” for this cynical charade in lieu of genuine reform, could not bring itself to call this a black mark against him. In fact it’s a smelly disgrace.

Though I rarely vote for any incumbents, let alone Democratic ones, State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has earned support. He has shown himself a straight-shooter, and seems immune from infection by Albany’s political culture. He has come out strongly, in an op-ed, against the redistricting referendum. Cuomo seems to despise DiNapoli. That should certainly recommend him.

imagesAnyhow, even if you do see all politicians as rotten scalawags – vote. And remember that voting for a minority no-hoper is not “wasting” your vote. You waste a vote if you bestow it on a candidate you don’t actually prefer. This is not a game, of trying to pick a winner; there are no prizes for that. And your vote doesn’t really have more weight if cast for a major candidate. We don’t participate on the theory that one’s individual vote will actually affect the outcome. Rather, this is our one great communal civic sacrament.

My wife's Halloween costume. Has nothing to do with this topic, but I liked it so much I'm posting it anyway.

My wife’s Halloween selfie. Has nothing to do with this topic, but I enjoyed the picture so much I’m posting it anyway.

* I forgot to mention there Cuomo’s egregious statement that “right wingers” have no place in New York State. I would say that people with that kind of intolerant attitude have no place in America. Meantime, progressives see Cuomo as pandering to them while actually selling out to moneyed interests who fatten his campaign war chest. T-U columnist Fred LeBrun baldly calls Cuomo a “fraud.”

Sarah Vowell’s “The Wordy Shipmates” – Puritan History

October 22, 2014

imagesAs this 2008 book’s title suggests, Sarah Vowell is a funny writer. Yet also a serious one. She writes serious books in a funny way. This one is actually a substantive chronicle of, and rumination upon, the Puritans who founded Boston. She quotes liberally from original sources. Interspersed with wisecracks.

images-2I wonder if her name – it means a type of letter, after all – had something to do with Vowell’s becoming a wordsmith. Such serendipities are more common than chance alone would produce. That a disproportionate percentage of people named Lawrence are lawyers, and Dennises are dentists, is a documented fact. (Or perhaps an urban legend.) Though her own name is misspelled, Vowell is a very good writer. The book’s last few sentences are a killer.

Unknown-2Boston was founded in 1630 by a different lot from the 1620 Plymouth Rock Pilgrims. Their leader and governor was John Winthrop; he’s the main character in this book, mostly portrayed sympathetically. (Vowell confesses she fell in love; though later she calls him a “monster.” Fickle woman!)

Also prominent is Roger Williams. Now, I have a thing for Roger Williams. I happened to live for 11 years with his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grand-daughter.* So I almost feel kin to him, or as much as a Jewish kid from Queens could.

UnknownWe first meet Williams among the early Boston Puritans. These people took their religion very seriously. I’ve always felt that if religion really were true, folks should take it more seriously. But Roger Williams took religion to an even higher level of seriousness than even your standard Puritan. Vowell quotes the letter he sent his wife upon learning she was very ill – not just a sermon, but one exhorting her to prepare for death. Nice.

I’m always struck by the certitude such people felt about their faith. Didn’t they realize millions of others had entirely different beliefs? Indeed, they spent a lot of effort massacring them. Yet never seemed to ponder the impossibility of knowing who’s right. (Most believers still don’t.)

Roger Williams was a titan of certitude. His inability to soft-peddle his convictions – he considered his neighbors insufficiently Puritan – got him kicked out of the colony. Thus was Rhode Island founded.

images-3Now here is the stunning thing. People then were typically killed over religious minutiae. Vowell talks of Mary Dyer, hanged in Boston for religious boo-boos. In Europe the Thirty Years War was raging, with vast slaughterings for God. Williams might have been expected to run Rhode Island as a theocracy brooking no dissent from his harsh views. Yet, zealot though he was, he also – bizarrely, for the time – fervently opposed coercion in matters of faith. Thus Rhode Island was established as a haven of religious tolerance. There, truly, was born this wonderful American idea of letting people think what they like.

images-4Religious liberty was enshrined by Williams in Rhode Island’s Royal Charter. And RI was the last of the original states to ratify the Constitution – holding out for the addition of a bill of rights.

One criticism of this book. Winthrop was famous for his “city on a hill” sermon, so often invoked by Ronald Reagan. Vowell takes this as a pretext for a vicious diatribe against Reagan (and drags in Bush 43 as well). She quotes liberally from Mario Cuomo’s speech mocking Reagan because in America’s “shining city on a hill” there are people suffering. Unknown-1But Reagan never meant the metaphor to describe an achieved state. To the contrary, it was aspirational – what America aims for, and works for. To do a Cuomo on him for that is just mean spirited, as is Vowell’s attack. It is neither clever, enlightening nor amusing. Why does she see fit to introduce (and hammer at length) her partisan political opinions in a book about the 17th century?

But to some people nowadays everything is political, and they are so imbued with (what seems to them) the righteousness of their views, they cannot ever desist from being in your face with them. They’re almost like . . . well, the Puritans.

* Not really special. A typical person 11 generations back would have a lot of modern descendants. And conversely, everyone today has a lot of ancestors back that far – 2,048 to be exact. The number doubles with each generation going backward; so after a few dozen your roster of ancestors would exceed the entire human population. How can that be? Well, your family tree is tangled with everyone else’s. We are all related.

China: The Arrogance of Unchecked Power

October 18, 2014

When I visited Russia in 1994, and a traveling companion asked, “Can we do such-and-such?” I replied, “Why not, it’s a free country.” Being able to say so felt great.

Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping

Mao Zedong

Mao Zedong

That was then.

I was also one of those optimists thinking that as China grew richer, it must become freer. But for now at least, it’s the opposite. President Xi Jinping is consolidating power to a degree unmatched since Mao, and what had been a glacially slow democratization has gone sharply into reverse.

To induce Britain to peacefully surrender Hong Kong in 1997, China made solemn promises for a transition to democratic home rule. Those promises have now been thoroughly flouted, with the regime refusing to countenance any sort of popular sovereignty. And, of course, beating and jailing people who protest.

But with unchecked power, you can do what you want, no matter how vile. Hong Kong today is the most visible manifestation. But Xi’s regime is engaged in an all-fronts assault upon anything and anyone viewed as even remotely challenging to its control.

Ilham Tohti was an ethnic Uighur economics professor at a prestigious Beijing university. He’s from Xinjiang, the (originally) Muslim far-west province, where long-simmering resentment at Chinese rule has been greatly enflamed by China’s ferocity in trying to stamp it out.

Ilham Tohti

Ilham Tohti

Tohti was a critic of China’s policy, and actually a rare calm voice of moderation. But charged with “separatism” he was sentenced in September to life in prison and confiscation of all his assets.

The advanced Western nations (and many copycats) have arrived at a social model wherein governmental power, and especially the power of any one person, is checked. This is more than merely political; it’s a mindset, a way of life, and once achieved it seems to stick. But attaining this level of maturity may be harder than optimists, like Francis Fukuyama (and me) imagined, and if you haven’t got there, everything remains up for grabs. Thus, China; and Russia; and creeps like Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka, Sisi in Egypt, Ortega in Nicaragua, Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Chavez (and his derisory successor Maduro) in Venezuela, and so on.*

Unknown-1Fukuyama’s 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man, argued that humanity’s long ideological struggles have finally ended in a rout by liberal democracy and market economics. He recently published a new book, basically saying, “Not so fast.” The rub is not any virtue in authoritarianism but, rather, problems internal to democracies. America is becoming politically dysfunctional and paralyzed. But Fukuyama’s original argument was that (classical) liberalism feeds our most fundamental human needs. That’s still a powerful counterforce against alternatives; I’d far rather live in a declining USA than a rising Putinist Russia!

The 1992 book ended with a metaphor of wagon trains: some have arrived at their destination while others remain out in the wilderness having lost their way or beset by troubles. But ultimately, Fukuyama said, all will get there.images-4

I still believe that. But a perfect polity exists only in Heaven (and maybe not even there).

* But note Iraq, where despite having eight years to ruthlessly entrench himself, Maliki could still be ousted by the political process; a hopeful sign.


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