Tuesday, July 21, 2020

How We Choose (In A Pandemic): An Interview With Richard Robb

By Michael Liss

On November 11, 2019, I wrote a review of Willful: How We Choose What We Do (Yale University Press, November 2019), by Richard Robb, Professor of Professional Practice in International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, and CEO of the investment firm Christofferson, Robb & Company.  He was kind enough to let me interview him in our changed times.

Michael Liss: Richard, last fall you published Willful, which introduced a new model of how to think about the way we make choices. Willful reached beyond classical “Rational Choice” to something you called “For-Itself Choice.” I know it is an economist’s job to be able to project into the future, but did you ever anticipate having such a bonanza of opportunities to demonstrate your ideas as that which arose because of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Richard Robb: I didn’t foresee COVID-19, Michael, if that’s what you’re suggesting! But yes, the pandemic has given us a “stage”—however ugly—on which to test a variety of ideas, including a few of mine. 

My book was published in November last year, and my hope was that the phrase on which I rest my thesis—“for-itself”—would someday seep into the language. It would have come in handy during the pandemic. For instance, when President Trump, seeking to scoff at those he saw as COVID-wimps, said that we continue to drive cars despite auto accidents, Dr. Fauci called that “a false equivalency.” He could have explained that it’s a false equivalency because the choice of how quickly to de-isolate is for-itself.

Here’s what I mean. Sometimes our choices—as individuals or as a society—involve trade-offs where we can pick what’s best. We rank all possible options on a common scale and choose what best satisfies our preferences in light of our resources. If we think clearly throughout this calculation, we’re exercising what economists describe as rational choice. If we fall prey to biases, like overconfidence in our abilities, then we’ve entered the realm of behavioral economics. Both scenarios fit into what I call “purposeful choice.”
But this can’t be the whole picture. Why? Because there are often times when there’s no comparison or trade-off that we can make. So we choose without regard to whether one option is better or worse than the alternatives. Such a choice is neither rational nor irrational. It stands “for-itself.”

I think the phrase adds analytical value, and has the virtue of being almost self-explanatory. But it will take a while for it to catch on. As far as I can tell, only my wife and children use it right now, and I’m pretty sure they’re humoring me. 

ML: You have pointed out that pretty much all public policy involves trade-offs: setting speed limits on a highway, or regulatory oversight for an industry. These calculations can be both necessary and cold, like literally setting a value on a human life. Given the massive economic cost of extended shutdowns, how do policy-makers decide on a metric of risk? To put it more starkly, what level of fatalities is acceptable per percentage point of GDP? And against what metric are we measuring it? Spanish Flu? Garden-variety Flu? 

RR: Auto safety is purposeful and can be approached via rational choice, even though the stakes are life and death. Motorists choose to take risks every time they go for a drive, and policymakers have to decide on regulations like speed limits. When drivers are in a hurry, they accept a slightly higher risk of dying and of killing others, while policymakers generally follow the “cold” (as you put it) advice of economists: raise the speed limit to the point where the value of the time saved equals the value of the lives lost. And yes, this requires assigning a value to life. 

Economists usually try to infer the value that individuals assign to their own lives from the choices they make, like how much to spend for a better motorcycle helmet that will reduce the probability of death by a small amount. Using this approach, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency pegs the “value of a statistical life” at around $9.5 million. This may sound cold-blooded, even repugnant, but policymakers don’t have much choice. When departments of highway safety do their job, one way or another, they commit to an actuarial calculation. 

ML: A few months ago, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said “No one reached out to me and said, as a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren? And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.” My first reaction to that was that Patrick was constructing a type of “trolley problem,” volunteering himself and his fellow seniors to be the ones pushed. How would you have analyzed this, both on a personal and policy level?

RR: My book used the trolley problem, originally devised by Philippa Foot, as an example of a pure for-itself life-and-death decision—in contrast to auto safety at the opposite extreme.
In one version of this thought experiment, you’re on a bridge above the tracks of a trolley that’s racing towards five construction workers. The only way to stop the trolley is to throw something heavy in its path. A fat man is standing next to you. You could push him in front of the trolley, killing one person to save five.

What is the right thing to do?

Most people say they wouldn’t push the fat man. I probably wouldn’t either. And if I did push him, I wouldn’t argue that it was morally right to do so. This decision stands for itself.
In pushing, you would kill a particular human being, what Camus called “the man who shaved this morning.” Unless you’ve talked yourself into a radically utilitarian worldview, you can’t compare one individual in the flesh with another, or even with five others. The highway safety problem and the trolley problem may look similar on the surface, but they lie at opposite extremes on a spectrum of action.

So, where does reopening the economy in a time of COVID fit in here? Is reopening subject to a rational cost-benefit analysis like auto safety, or is it for-itself, like the trolley problem? 
I think it’s somewhere in between these extremes, but feels closer to the trolley problem. While some people will have fatal accidents because the speed limit is five miles per hour higher than it might have been, we can’t know in advance who they will be. They are abstract and far away. But we do know who the “fat man” is. If we de-isolate precipitously, we know who’s most likely to die: people with underlying health conditions and the elderly. In short order, we’ll know precisely who has died.

Even in the for-itself realm, cost-benefit calculations can still be useful. If I’m deciding whether to push the fat man, I’d like to know if he’s dying of a terminal illness and whether pushing him will save five people or five hundred. A cost-benefit analysis for reopening the economy is useful in the same way, as long as we don’t become caught up in the pretense that it dictates the right actions according to a scientific formula.

To be sure, the Lieutenant Governor of Texas would be heroic if he were to choose an excruciating death for himself in exchange for the greater good. But that choice has not been offered to him. 

ML: A Texas Republican might very well react differently than a Northeastern Democratic Governor. Given how fractious American political life is, we would expect polarization here, even as to basic facts. You have lived and worked abroad. Compare, say, Japan, where total COVID deaths are under 1000. Are there cultural differences that reflect themselves in how public and private choices are made in times like these? 

RR: In late February, South Korea experienced two weeks of exponential growth in COVID-19 cases, rivaling that of any country. Within a month, its cases were almost down to zero. My son, who lives in Bucheon, South Korea, has told me of the near-universal compliance with social distancing and contact tracing. (An exception was a fringe religious group.) This happened throughout East Asia. As of mid-July, the U.S. had 10,200 cases per million and rising; the hardest-hit East Asian country is the Philippines with 333 per million. Asia’s voluntary compliance is not possible in the U.S. for several reasons. American individualism is traditionally a source of strength, but not at the moment. Americans are less likely to trust authority. President Trump amplified this reflexive skepticism recently by retweeting the views of a Catholic archbishop who’d said that COVID-19 is a “deep-state” plot to undermine his achievements. 

ML: How do the economic calculations during the pandemic apply to individuals? We know that the economically disadvantaged have been disproportionately impacted, and the loss of income can be catastrophic, even down to basic necessities. It seems society has a moral dilemma: We either command these people to stay home, and possibly starve, or, as in the meatpacking industry, we deem them essential and tell them they have to come in, and take real risks.

RR: People losing their income shouldn’t be a moral quandary. The government can make it up to them—after all, we’re a rich country. And to a great extent, that has happened—both here and abroad.

But it’s a shame to squander public resources on bailouts for industries that don’t need them, like airlines or casinos. Let some airlines go bankrupt. The industry won’t vanish and we’ll still be able to fly. Airlines will reemerge from bankruptcy, as they always do. This is not a financial crisis like 2007/2008—financial markets are working just fine—so the Federal Reserve doesn’t need to buy corporate bonds, exchange traded funds and the like.
Let’s not forget, also, that many professional decisions are made for-itself. Healthcare workers have chosen a noble profession. Some may feel pressured to work on the front lines, but many choose it. Work is tied up with identity and has many dimensions—it’s not just a sacrifice of leisure time for money to buy material goods. The choice to rise to this challenge is partially for-itself. This applies not just to medical professionals, but to all essential workers.

ML: There’s something new about this crisis that seems to demand more nuanced decisions. It’s not a car safety measure, or even something like an occupational hazard regulation, where the number of potential injuries and fatalities is comparatively limited. One person, or one group of people, can effectively act as a Typhoid Mary, and we can’t easily identify any specific group and have to impose far broader restrictions. In effect, the vast majority of us are, temporarily at least, the fat man being thrown on the tracks. How do politicians create public policy on the fly that works, get buy-in from the population (because voluntary compliance is critical) and find the “Goldilocks” balance?

RR: Assuming we could measure the value of life and quantify the impact of social distancing on health outcomes, we’d still have to measure the cost of social distancing. The multi-trillion dollar “bailout” is a transfer from taxes paid back to a subset of taxpayers, not a cost. And since GDP was never intended to measure outcomes during a pandemic, any figure that represents “lost GDP” (even if we could estimate it) could be grossly inaccurate. Forgone restaurant meals, for instance, disappear from GDP, while meals prepared at home (net of the cost of ingredients) go uncounted. Any enjoyment during leisure time is omitted, but so are anxieties and the lost “utility” of birthdays celebrated on Zoom. GDP measures the loss of ticket sales on Broadway, but not the stalled careers of actors that might never get back on track. In the spring, I taught classes online to students dispersed around the world, which was better than I expected. GDP counts the tuition paid as output but can’t adjust for students’ lost social experience. 

Even if we could all agree on how to calculate the welfare gains and losses, most of us sense deep down that decisions about COVID-19 differ from those about auto safety. The deaths caused by de-isolating too soon do not have quite the same proximity as that of a man you pushed with your own hands, but they’re uncomfortably close. Whatever the calculation says, individuals and the government that represents them don’t want to let real people die for an abstraction.

In my view, there’s no rule book to guide politicians to the optimal response. In a Western democracy, it has to be a process that involves the consent of the governed. Public policy “on the fly” doesn’t have to feel reckless. When politicians demonstrate leadership and wisdom, like Governor Cuomo of New York State or New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, then a popular buy-in will follow. 

ML: In your book, you talk about altruism. Obviously, in these circumstances, we are seeing both extraordinary acts of selflessness and seriously repugnant behavior. Are you optimistic that we may learn something from all this, and perhaps adjust our values?

RR: I believe people are generally pro-social, by which I mean they usually have an instinctive understanding of what’s good for society and act on it more than serves their narrow self-interest. This is compatible with economic theory, which allows for self-interest to be broadly defined. The satisfaction, or “utility,” that an individual maximizes might depend on inputs like the well-being of others, altruism or adherence to ethical standards.

Most altruistic actions, according to my taxonomy, fall into the purposeful realm, where they can be understood in terms of rational choice. We act to benefit those we care about. The more we care or the lower the cost we incur, the more we do. Voluntarily wearing masks in public is purposeful: we balance the costs against the benefits. Costs are inconvenience (where did I put my mask?), discomfort and fogging up glasses. Benefits are protecting myself against infection, protecting others that I care about, and demonstrating a buy-in to the social contract. The calculation can be rational. And if I overweight small risks, it would be not quite rational but subject to cognitive bias.

Some altruistic gestures, though, are not “optimal” in any sense. Let me give you a personal example. In March, a long-lost former student back in China FedExed me a gift of hard-to-get N95 masks. Why? His altruistic act was random—he can’t lavish this degree of care on everyone he’s ever known who lives in a COVID-19 hot spot, and there’s no special reason to send them to me. But I wouldn’t say my student made a mistake, that if he’d been thinking clearly he’d have allocated those resources more efficiently. We all make for-itself altruistic gestures that we can’t (and shouldn’t have to) explain. Think of the Good Samaritan from the biblical parable. 

Getting those masks was a relatively small matter, of course, although I appreciated it. Others, as you say, are extraordinary. Who can forget Li Wenliang, the doctor in Wuhan who tried to raise the alarm about the coronavirus in the early days of its outbreak. He was muzzled by the authorities and died shortly after. His altruism can be seen in his selflessness and courage.

It’s sort of amazing how cooperative we are as creatures, although there’s no doubt room to improve. We rationally seek to promote the well-being of people we care about, and for many this extends to the whole world and future generations. 

ML: There is a strong undercurrent in American political life of disdain for technical expertise and technocrats. Yet situations like this cry out for them. How do we climb that particular wall when many resent the costs and do not see the benefit, primarily because the benefits are just the absence of infection and don’t necessarily feel “real”? 

RR: In my book Willful, I argue that we don’t just care whether our beliefs hold up against data. As Charles Sanders Peirce explained, we adopt beliefs that are “agreeable to reason,” fit with our other beliefs and are held by authorities that we recognize. Our beliefs have a for-itself element; they constitute our identity and are more than just instruments to help us get ahead. I don’t consider this irrational, but rather essential to being human. We are what we believe in. 

Adherence to social distancing protocols, for instance, goes together with a certain constellation of beliefs. People who voluntarily follow the rules tend to believe that scientific evidence is the highest standard and the system that generates this evidence can be trusted. Others, as you suggest, distrust elites, and won’t follow their advice until they can see the disease spread in their community. 
Once there’s a vaccine, I imagine the two sides will square off in a titanic battle. I reckon it will be worse if the vaccine comes out during a Democratic administration. A few weeks ago, self-described Republicans were asked about their view of the theory that Bill Gates is planning to use a COVID-19 vaccine to plant microchips into billions of people and track their movements. A shocking 44% said they believed the conspiracy theory was true, only 26% said it was false, and 31% said they weren’t sure.

ML: I’d like to talk a little bit about the implications of the social and emotional costs of distancing and the shutdowns. Is this one of those traumatizing events, like the Depression and WWII were for the Greatest Generation, that may influence future behavior for decades to come, and, if so, what are your expectations?

RR: For young people entering the labor market, the evidence suggests that the consequences will be long-lasting. Those who graduated from college during the 1980-81 recession, as I did, tend to have lower earnings than the cohorts that graduated a few years earlier or a few years later. If you begin your career during a recession, it takes longer to establish yourself, and you don’t develop the human capital to “reinvest” to generate more human capital. You never catch up.

Forecasts are tricky, of course, but I don’t think we’ll go back to the pre-pandemic normal, unlike 9/11, which was a trauma with relatively few lasting consequences for most people who were not directly affected. The social and emotional effects of the pandemic may be accompanied by a loss of dynamism in economies of the West, de-globalization, and a decline in American influence. As Leonard Cohen said, “You’re not going to like what comes after America.” 

ML: You said, “We are what we believe in.” But your professional life is built around an ongoing, dispassionate analysis of risk, and you recalibrate when the facts on the ground change sufficiently. Do you think, given people’s differing beliefs, and the intensity with which they are expressed, we are capable of that recalibration? Can we alter, just enough, what going into that “for-itself” element to avoid Leonard Cohen’s warning? 

RR: According to legend, which I believe to be true, Keynes quipped, “When the evidence changes, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?” But this was rhetoric to disarm his enemies to coming around to his point of view. Like almost everyone, Keynes held reasonably consistent views over his life. 

As an investor, sure, I try to be dispassionate and recalibrate in response to the facts. But I also conduct that job in a social setting. We manage money on behalf of institutional investors, applying a steady process shaped by judgment, experience, data and consensus among my colleagues. The important facts on the ground are usually subject to ambiguity. Sometimes we have to take a for-itself leap based on evidence that can’t be readily quantified, but that leap needs to measure up to investors’ expectations.

As for the social and political fracturing in the U.S., I don’t know that beliefs differ nowadays any more than they usually do. Nor are the problems we disagree about, such as the economy or international relations, objectively more acute than in the past.

It is not practical that the country will recalibrate and settle on a common view to overcome our political dysfunction. Take free trade, for example. A lot of Americans—slightly less than half—are against it. One more lecture, “Now listen here, everyone gains from trade” is unlikely to succeed where all the previous ones have failed. As Walt Whitman said, “Logic and sermons never convince.” But it isn’t necessary that everyone agree. 

There is hope that America will reinvent itself. The next few months will, quite probably, shape the next few years.

ML: Thank you, Richard.

How We Choose was first published on July 20, 2020 in 3quarksdaily.com

You can find other work by Michael Liss at 3Q, and you can follow us on Twitter @SyncPol

Monday, June 22, 2020

134 Days--On 3Quarks.

By Michael Liss

Had enough of the 2020 election? Take heart, there are just 134 days left until Vote-If-You-Can Tuesday. That’s less time than it took Napoleon to march his Grande Armée into Russia, win several lightning victories, stall out, and then retreat through the brutal winter, with astronomical casualties, all the while inspiring the equally long War and Peace and the 1812 Overture.

Who will win? My renowned tea leaf collection seems a little wilted today, but it still says that absolutely nothing is out of the realm of possibility. We really could go anywhere from a 2016 redux to a Democratic sweep. Given the vintage nature of the two candidates, you can’t even rule out a variation on the West Wing Leo McGarry scenario. Expect the asymmetric.

Under any circumstances, the electoral math would have been fascinating. Conventional wisdom has always been focused on the six Obama 2012 states that Trump flipped in 2016 (Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, Ohio, and Iowa). A key portion of the “Biden Electability” argument was based on his presumed appeal in those states. They would be the battleground because that’s where the winner would be determined.

It’s fair to say that fate, in the form of a pandemic and the country’s reaction to the death of George Floyd, has taken a hand. There are now multiple pathways for each man to reach 270, including several really unusual routes. The recent polling for Trump has been brutal. His top-line favorability numbers have taken a hit, particularly in the areas of race relations and handling COVID-19. That’s been further reflected in the horse race, where Biden has a roughly ten-point lead nationally.

Of course, 2016 showed in excruciating detail just how national polls can be woefully inaccurate in predicting where the Electoral College will end up. It’s reasonable to expect that past is prologue for even greater Democratic margins in places like New York and California, given the way Trump revels in messing with the Blue States. Unfortunately for Joe, once again, when you dig down deeper, you can see that many of the critical state polls are less decisive than the national ones. Joe leads, sometimes somewhat improbably (North Carolina, Arizona, and Georgia) but often barely. He’s within the margin of error in Florida, Georgia and Ohio, and could easily whiff on all three. A 2.1% advantage in the popular vote left Hillary’s candidacy in smoldering ruins. I’ve seen some estimates that Biden could have as much as a 4% advantage, and still lose. 

Still, in an environment where Trump’s base support is nearly unshakable, Biden’s edge is notable. The prospect of his holding here, or even running the table, is not completely out of the question, just long odds. Biden’s absolute peak might exceed Obama’s 2008 win (365 EV) with a slightly different mix. The more probable outcome is that present polling numbers are truly of the moment, and that moment is the nadir of Trump’s fortunes. If that’s true, not only does Trump have the ability to grab back some of “his” states, but also can target at least two Biden ones. Both Minnesota (with added volatility because of George Floyd) and Nevada (casino-dependent and hurt by the shutdown) are possibilities.

If this all weren’t so incredibly important, it would be abstractly fascinating. For years, political scientists have been talking about how virtually every election has become nationalized, even when voters, in selecting their team, seem to be voting against their own interests. Consensus is out, angry tribalism is in. 2016, with its Trump-Clinton car-wreck of the unthinkable vs. the unlikeable, was the culmination of this movement. Never have a pair of candidates been so detested by so many—yet nominated.

2020 was shaping up to be much the same. Although none of the potential Democatic contenders generated nearly the visceral reaction that Hillary did, Trump was already peppering them with insults, and Trump-aligned social media spreading some poison. Suffice to say three-plus years in the White House had done nothing to mellow him. A great many people thought Trump would be a moderate businessman who would break some eggs, but in the end govern center-right. They were wrong. Vote Trump, you get deep dark dead-red Republican, with a potent dose of malevolence. That’s who he (now) is, and there are tens of millions who find that appealing. There are plenty more who would have liked the policy wins wrapped in a prettier package, but think what’s in the box looks good. When we talk about Trump’s base, we have to acknowledge that it’s not just MAGA-hatted attendees at one of his jumbo rallies or the near-monolithic support he gets from Evangelicals, but also transactional voters like seniors who want order and business people who let the bottom line guide them. A key to understanding Trump’s appeal is that he also gives, he doesn’t just take, and those who get don’t often refuse out of principle.

As long as these folks find their fulfillment (for emotional or practical reasons) in Trump, he has nationalized the election to an extent not seen before. You are either in the Trump Tent (and that includes Republican candidates for other offices) or you are the enemy. It’s all Trump: Trump dominating the screen(s), Trump meting out pain and pleasure, Trump using his incumbency for all it’s worth. That’s what Democrats anticipated as they lurched their way through the primary season. That, along with the confounding fact that, despite their strong performance in the 2018 Midterms, there was plenty of evidence that Trump’s strength in the states he had flipped in 2016 was holding.

Biden’s astonishing resurrection after the South Carolina primary on February 29th altered the emotional dynamic, but did little to change the basic math. It was still Trump’s game (and Trump’s Senate to investigate Biden on Trump’s behalf). While Biden was perceived as more electable by Democratic Primary voters, I think Trump and his brain trust entered mid-March with a feeling of confidence. Joe was feeble and battle-scarred, and they relished the idea of pulverizing another artifact of the Obama Era. They didn’t realize they were sitting on a viral stew (actually, two, the other being George Floyd) that could fundamentally change the landscape in the blink of an eye.
Trump was about to be tested by an issue no amount of Trumpiness would make go away.

Sometimes, there really are those 3:00 a.m. phone calls. I’m going to make two suggestions that seem mutually exclusive but I believe are true. First, Trump fumbled terribly in his initial response to COVID. He blustered, pointed fingers, suggested it was a hoax, picked fights with Governors, and obstructed his own government from helping. Second, it doesn’t matter, at least politically.  At worst it’s a flesh-wound for his campaign. A lot of elected officials, on both sides of the aisle, didn’t quite grasp the threat early on, and, while most of them didn’t use a bazooka on their critics, I think the public has internalized Trump’s excesses and are rarely moved by them. By the time we reach November, most aren’t going to blame him for March, April and May.

What will be important is what happens over the next 133 days, where it happens, and when. Absolutely no one can tell you with any degree of certainty what infection and fatality rates are going to be next month, much less in November. Nor can they predict whether more effective treatments or a vaccine will become available. The best that the best and most experienced minds can do is talk about probabilities.

Trump is going to have to rely on his extraordinary luck. One thing we learned from the initial public reaction to news of the virus and government attempts (or non-attempts) to get in front of it was how site-specific it was. Philip Klinkner, in an article for Vox, pointed out that “Clinton counties make up a slight majority of the US population, but so far they have seen 76 percent of the Covid-19 cases and 80 percent of the deaths.” He goes on to say, “This means Democrats and Republicans have experienced the pandemic in objectively different ways. These differences are already shaping the nation’s pandemic response—and may well influence American politics for years to come.”

Klinkner’s article was published on May 1st, and he was prescient. The divide continued to grow as new data came in, showing that the greatest infection and fatality rates were in Blue States and among the elderly and minorities. Trump’s base remained remote from the crisis, except in reacting to remediation efforts. Their resentment at restrictions and the economic implications, stoked by the President and his allies in the media, intensified. Even recent spikes in infection rates in reopening Sunbelt states haven’t yet caused universal alarm in the places they should, or action. These hands-off choices represent gambles by Governors like Greg Abbott, Ron DeSantis, Brian Kemp, and Doug Ducey (Texas, Florida, Georgia and Arizona) that the number of the seriously ill will stay below the rest of the population’s pain threshold.

Their gamble is Trump’s gamble. If he wins it, not only will he regain his grasp on some of those wavering states, but he will also put some others, presently in Democratic hands, in play for himself and other Republican candidates. The public in general has consistently supported reasonable restrictions to blunt the curve of the disease, but its patience is not infinite. People want to get back to the lives they led in early March. Trump (and Trump-supporting Governors) are telling them they can.

Timing is critical. First, Trump wants things to loosen up enough to force Biden to abandon his McKinley-esqe “Front-Porch Candidacy,” which allows Joe to husband his physical resources for the home stretch. Biden’s measured, Presidential responses, on COVID, on George Floyd, and on anything else, either in public, or from his home, are driving Trump nuts. He wants Biden to step into the (non-virtual) ring, and has been ridiculing him for his weakness. So far, Biden hasn’t taken the bait, but he will have to if conditions improve. Both his team and Trump realize his vulnerability.

Second, Trump wants to recreate 2016. He craves the adrenaline of rallies filled with mask-less people waving banners and cheering themselves silly. Trump is a master of branding and symbols, and for him, the most important quality to showcase is strength. His gathering in Tulsa just this past Saturday was a critical test. Watch the next two weeks. If he and his followers can get through it with no significant spikes in infection rates, that opens the door for more rallies, and more grievances against “weak” Governors and Mayors who insist on putting public health concerns first. If infections surge, it will be more bad PR, but Trump will try again in July somewhere else. He’s not giving up his rallies, especially as it would be seen as a concession. Trump doesn’t do concessions. 

How does this end? Which side will have a hangover on the Wednesday after? It’s unclear.  Biden is doing a little rope-a-dope, and it’s working for him, at least now. As to Trump, he’s a bit off his game, but still punching, still the apex predator. The basic Trumpian approach to everything, taking credit while refusing to accept responsibility, spiced up with what you saw in Tulsa, remains adaptable to the current situation. More importantly, Trump can also still reach transactional voters: he has a plausible argument that (unduly harsh) restrictions tanked the economy, and it’s his pro-growth policies that will lead us back. He might even get some help from the weather, as the summer heat is predicted to slow the virus.

134 days is a lot of time to get things right. Or it’s too many.  Of course, Napoleon eventually
abandoned the Grande Armée and returned home on a sleigh. It was awfully cold out there.

134 Days was first published at 3quarksdaily.com on June 22, 2020


You can also find us on Twitter @SyncPol




Monday, May 25, 2020

Liberty and Disunion

There is a statue of Daniel Webster in Central Park. It is tucked in at the intersection of West and Bethesda Drives, massive and unmoving, implacable and forbidding. Despite its size, it goes largely unnoticed, except as a meeting point.

Just a few hundred feet to the west of Webster is The Dakota, where John Lennon lived and died, and Strawberry Fields, a small memorial inside the Park dedicated to Lennon’s memory. In non-viral times, buses line up near The Dakota, and platoons of tourists pause there for pictures, then walk to Strawberry Fields, then across to Bethesda Fountain. If you happen to be jogging, they will wait until you pass, many with bemused looks at the strange beings who inhabit this odd corner of the universe. Occasionally, a guided tour will take brief note of Webster, but most move on. Such is fame.

It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when Daniel Webster was seen as a giant, one of the foremost statesmen of the first half of the 19th Century. He, along with Kentucky’s Henry Clay and South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun, were known as the Great Triumvirate of the Senate. All three also served as Secretary of State; all three ached for the Presidency and never quite got there; all three were antagonists, rivals, and sometimes collaborators. Clay was the Great Compromiser. Of Calhoun, the historian Richard Hofstadter said he was “probably the last American statesman to do any primary political thinking.” Webster was an orator so esteemed that Stephen Vincent Benét had him besting the Devil himself. 

These qualities all came together in one of the most fascinating and consequential debates in our history, South Carolina’s drive for Nullification, and, eventually, its assertion that it had the right to leave the Union. William F. Freehling called it a “Prelude to Civil War” (in a book of the same title) and, in its issues and its sectional animosities, one can see why. It certainly had high drama—florid speeches, torchlight parades, marching and mass rallies, dueling, armed militias drilling, and the glowering presence of the biggest personality of all, Andrew Jackson.

For all that, it started small. In 1816, the national government adopted tariffs that were intended to protect domestic manufacturers from foreign competition. At the time, it made sense. We were still a new nation, slowly recovering from the War of 1812, needing to support a military, domestic industry, and basic improvements. Yet, tariffs were controversial, particularly in the South. Though facially non-discriminatory, they did have an adverse impact on non-diversified agriculturally-based economies, while benefiting (mostly Northern) manufacturers. South Carolina, perhaps the most extreme example of a monoculture economy, and faced with an erratic market for its crops and steady degradation of its lands, was particularly vulnerable and justifiably concerned.

If Congress had left the 1816 Tariff unchanged, it’s likely the anger would have continued, but on a slow burn. Unfortunately, Congress wasn’t done. The Tariff of 1828 (“Tariff of Abominations”) exacerbated the problem, rather than offer legislative relief. It passed with minimal resistance, probably because the South had much bigger concerns: The rematch between the decidedly unloved John Quincy Adams and Tennessee’s Andrew Jackson. 

Adams’ election in 1824 had shaken the South. All were aware that demographic changes had tilted the Congressional playing field towards the North, but, after 24 years of the Presidency being held by Virginians (Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe), 1824 reminded them of their vulnerability. Virginians might be a little high-handed at times, but were comparatively safe. New Englanders were arrogant and boorish money-grubbers who held dangerous views on things like human bondage, and might use their power to take swipes at it.

Jackson decisively defeated Adams, but the Tariff was still there, and many South Carolinians wanted it gone. So did Calhoun, who was playing a difficult double game. As first Adams’ and then Jackson’s Vice President, it was difficult for him to advocate policies at direct variance with the President’s. And as someone who hungered for the top spot, it might have been political suicide to take too radical a position in public. In 1828, while the campaign was going on, he had secretly authored his “Exposition and Protest,” which quite explicitly called for nullification of the Tariff, in the context of making a much broader philosophical argument for what we now would call (very) limited government. But that remained a secret, and, in public, he maintained a moderate, more nationalistic face.

Nullification was a challenging concept, but Calhoun was an extraordinarily gifted thinker.  Even skipping some of the intricacies of his arguments, the underpinnings remain resonant, at a time when so many of us are questioning the exercise of government power. Calhoun worried about majority domination in a republican form of government. Invariably, in Calhoun’s thinking, once a group (or aligned groups) gained power, they would exploit their position to reward themselves at the expense of the minority.  Obviously, Calhoun wasn’t the first to recognize this; the Founders themselves had concerns. But experience had told him that the aspirational virtue expressed in Madison’s Federalist 10—a conviction that diversity of interests and opinions would create a dynamic that would foster compromise—had not been achieved.

The answer to Majority Tyranny was either nullification or what Calhoun called a “concurrent majority,” requiring each interest (each state) to consent to legislation. To modern eyes, it seems wildly impractical,  but, at a time when the world was far less complex, and many people thought of themselves as state citizens as well, it had some appeal. 

Yet, there was a core incongruity in Calhoun’s argument, which even he tacitly acknowledged: If you considered the Constitution a contract (as many citizens did, in the Lockean sense of the word), didn’t the states (including South Carolina, the eighth state to ratify) agree on behalf of themselves and their citizens to be bound by laws that were passed by Congress and signed by the President? The Tariff might very well be abominable, but it’s a law, and if you don’t like the law, use the mechanisms in place (such as Amendment or Supreme Court review) to change it.

Calhoun had an exquisitely wrought answer for this: That wasn’t the nature of the contract. The Constitution did not give final “sovereign” authority to determine what was Constitutional to any branch or branches of government, including the Supreme Court. Final authority would have had to have been specifically expressed as such in the document, and it was not. In the absence of an enumerated power, the authority remained with the states, and not as a majority of states, but each individual one. Calhoun considered several approaches, but settled on an elegant one: It is the people—the governed–who are the supreme arbiters over that to which they have given their consent. Consent once given is not consent for all time. The governed may withhold their consent and seek to change the terms of the contract (or any piece of legislation) when they wish, through the mechanism of a state convention. This was the way citizens preserved their rights.

Calhoun was somewhat clairvoyant in his concerns. He grasped that the power to determine, with finality, whether a law is Constitutional, was also a power to shape the law itself. Even the Supreme Court could be controlled by a malevolent majority. This is why, from his perspective, ultimate sovereignty must reside with the governed.

What Calhoun did not address adequately was the practical effect of Nullification. The power to say no turned majoritarianism on its head—to maintain a Union, the many must always yield to the few. While Calhoun professed to be a Nationalist (whether for political reasons or out of belief is not clear) he was, in fact, advocating for a policy that made it impossible for a union of states to be anything more than a casual confederation. 

As radical as this idea seems, it first gave strength to the Unionists in South Carolina by supplying them with an intellectual construct for their position. That allowed them to beat back the radicals who wanted more aggressive action (like secession). But it also contained the seeds of its own destruction because of its inherent instability. Nullification wasn’t reform; it was, in practice, a call for revolution from 50 years of government under the Constitution. Even those sympathetic to South Carolina on the specific issue of Tariffs (or, both tacitly and explicitly, slavery) recognized that there was no national consensus for it.

Discussion in Congress was heated, and, in late December 1829, Senator Samuel Foot (CT) lit a match by introducing a resolution calling for an inquiry into limiting the sale of public lands in what was then the Southwest. Over the course of the next few months, nearly half the Senators weighed in, several multiple times, and on many more issues than land. The speeches became public spectacles; the galleries were filled; and, as an added touch of drama, Calhoun attended in his (then) role as Vice President and President of the Senate. The emotional climax was the debate between Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina and Webster. Hayne gave a good account of himself but stumbled a bit on nullification when he declared that the state legislature, rather than a state convention, could nullify a Federal law. Webster pounced. On January 26, 1830, he rose and, over two days, carefully dissected the internal inconsistencies of Haynes’s argument. Then Daniel Webster did a Daniel Webster:
When my eyes shall be turned to behold for the last time the sun in heaven, may I not see him shining on the broken and dishonored fragments of a once glorious Union…Let their last feeble and lingering glance rather behold the gorgeous ensign of the republic, not a stripe erased or polluted, nor a single star obscured…but everywhere, spread all over in characters of living light, blazing on all its ample folds, as they float over the sea and over the land…Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!
The gallery, the entire Chamber, stayed silent as Webster resumed his seat. He had accomplished an extraordinary feat. With one burst of eloquence, he had yanked the discussion from Calhoun’s astringent intellectualism into something deeper and more emotional, a pride of place and country. Nullification was a coldblooded political tactic. Webster drew people to a higher calling.

Webster’s speech might have been a turning point, but, in hindsight, you can see he may also have accelerated the crisis. On February 5, 1830, George McDuffie, a South Carolina Congressman (and later Senator and Governor), introduced a bill to roll back the 1828 and 1824 rates. It was tabled by a decisive margin, demonstrating anew the futility of South Carolina’s hopes to get Congressional redress. A month of debate had moved its cause backwards, and some who hoped to work through the system now began to despair that more aggressive action was needed.

At the same time, relations between Calhoun and Jackson deteriorated. On April 13, 1830, at the annual Jefferson Day celebration, several toasts were made that supported the minority veto. Jackson would have none of it, and came armed with his own. He bade the crowd rise, fixed his fierce gaze on Calhoun, and toasted “Our Federal Union—It must be preserved.”  Calhoun, clearly shaken, was only able to offer “The Union—Next to our liberties, the most dear.”

The Nullifiers had boxed themselves in. The radicalness of their proposal and the intemperate language with which they often expressed themselves alienated others in the South who might otherwise have been sympathetic. Jackson himself was a moderate on the Tariff issue and urged his allies to make some accommodation, but both he and the South Carolinians must have realized that the contest was no longer just about collecting duties, it was about power, theirs, and his.

With nowhere else to go, the South Carolinians turned on each other, with the Nullifiers and the Unionists in pitched battle for control. The Unionists’ early upper hand evaporated as passions rose, and the Nullifiers’ superior organizational skills began to have an effect. In the summer of 1831, the pressure on Calhoun to out himself was finally too much to resist, and he issued his Fort Hill Letter, announcing to the nation his support of Nullification. Historians differ over whether this was an implicit acknowledgment that his presidential aspirations weren’t succeeding, or an attempt to be seen as a regional champion and win the White House that way. In either event, it drove a final wedge between him and both Jackson and Jackson’s supporters. Calhoun ceased being a national candidate.

On October 26, 1832, the State Legislature, now dominated by Nullifiers, passed a law authorizing a State Convention to be held a month later, to consider actions proper for the State to address in the absence of satisfactory progress. The Convention met in November, after Jackson had won reelection, and with no meaningful resistance from the Unionists (many of whom boycotted it), passed a sweeping resolution. After reciting a list of grievances, the resolution declared the Tariffs of 1828 and 1832 void and made it a penal offense for a federal or state officer to attempt to enforce them after Feb. 1, 1833. The Legislature was directed to pass any laws necessary to effectuate this, and to protect a citizen if he refused to pay duties. Any attempt by the federal government to enforce the laws would be considered a justification for South Carolina to secede. Governor Hamilton and the Legislature made sure that wasn’t the end of it. In a barnburner of a speech, he reinforced the idea of secession, and called for an army of at least 12,000 men. The Legislature passed the necessary enabling legislation and added something of its own: a “Test Oath” of exclusive obedience to state laws for all state officeholders (a remarkable demand given the Nullifiers’ complaints about majority tyranny at the federal level).

The Fire-eaters were exultant. They thought of the signing of the new ordinances as akin to that of the Declaration of Independence. Robert Hayne resigned from the Senate and was promptly elected Governor, and Calhoun resigned as Vice President and was selected to be his replacement. Hayne’s first speech exceeded Hamilton’s in passion and radicalism, and, by all accounts, many of his listeners were swept away by his fervor.

Perhaps this was the highwater mark. Reality began to close in very rapidly. The expressions of support that were expected from their fellow Southerners were notably absent, and several state governments were quite critical. And there was that man in the White House, who was not known to appreciate resistance.

Jackson didn’t wait long to react. Quietly, he gave orders for the military to prepare, while taking steps to minimize direct engagement so as to avoid the possibility of an inadvertent shooting war. Publicly, he gave his Annual Message to Congress, declaring that Nullification would endanger the Union, and expressing confidence that extant laws were sufficient for him to deal with it, but also encouraging Congress to review the Tariff laws and lower existing rates.

If South Carolina drew any comfort from this, he dispelled it quickly. On December 10th, Jackson took on Nullification and Secession with all the forcefulness and clarity of purpose for which he was known. In his Nullification Proclamation (largely written by Secretary of State Edward Livingston), he said,
I consider, then, the power to annul a law of the United States, assumed by one State, incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which It was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed.
In case anyone thought his views on secession were any more nuanced: “[D]isunion, by armed force, is TREASON.”

The issue could not be more clearly drawn. To Jackson, his duty was clear, as was his understanding of the Constitutional “contract.” Once a law was duly enacted, the remedies available were through Constitutional Amendment or a ruling by the Supreme Court, not Nullification. But, the Nullification Proclamation wasn’t just a closed fist. If you read it through, you will also see Jackson appealing to South Carolinians’ sense of shared nationhood and their place as both heroes of the past and beneficiaries of a great American future.

January of 1833 was a blur of action. South Carolina speechified and planned, recruited and drilled. Jackson let it be known that he was willing to take command personally, to squelch the rebellion. Both sides wooed the undeclared Southern States, and both knew that the first one to commit a violent act could cause those states to tip in the opposite direction. In Washington, Jackson grimly prepared for the worst, but quietly looked for a less confrontational resolution. 

Delicate, difficult, but not impossible, and, at this critical moment, Jackson showed remarkable balance. The stick was his own iron will, and his request to Congress to give him additional authority in what came to be known as the “Force Bill.” The carrot: He encouraged the introduction of a Tariff reform bill.

Into the middle of this jumped Henry Clay, recently thoroughly thrashed by Jackson in the 1832 election. Clay was no fan of the President, and opposed the Force Bill, but relished the opportunity to be peacemaker, and privately worked with both sides, including directly with Calhoun. Calhoun played a public role as well, in a two-day performance ardently arguing against the Force Bill and for what had become his obsession, the logic of state sovereignty.  Then Webster rose to challenge Calhoun, defended the Force Bill and the compromise Tariff, and the circle closed. Deals were made, the Compromise of 1833 was set, and, on March 2, 1833, Jackson signed both the Force Bill and the Tariff Reform Bill, and South Carolina obliquely accepted it by pretending some of it didn’t quite exist. All the players congratulated themselves on their victories.

Happy ending? Calhoun maintained his allegiance to his theories, and was known to expostulate at great length to anyone within earshot. Clay found himself defined by his opposition to Jackson, but remained in the Senate, eventually becoming a Whig. He tried three more times for the Presidency, winning the nomination once more, in 1844, only to lose the general election to John Tyler. As for Webster, he ran for President in 1836, but ended up a fringe candidate. Later he was a credible Secretary of State, then returned to the Senate and worked with Clay on the Compromise of 1850. In a final irony, he was considered far too friendly to the South and lost political support closer to home.

South Carolina? The fire never went entirely out, and, if you think about it, the tension between Majority rule and Minority rights can never be fully resolved. All we can do is try to act in good faith, and, by doing so, engender trust.  It does seem like a thin reed at times.

Liberty and Disunion was first published on Memorial Day, May 25th, 2020 at 3Quarksdaily.com

You can find it there, and other original work by Michael Liss.

https://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2020/05/liberty-and-disunion.html

And you can find syncopatedpolitics.com and me on Twitter @SyncPol



Monday, April 27, 2020

Biden's Binders: We Select a Veep-On 3Q

By Michael Liss

That Fifties-looking gent to your right is John J. Sparkman (D-Alabama) who was Adlai Stevenson’sSouthern Manifesto, in emphatic opposition to Brown vs. Board of Education.
running mate in 1952. Sparkman served in Congress for more than 40 years, the last 32 of them in the Senate. While not a star, he was associated with several pieces of important legislation and became Chair of the Senate Banking Committee and, late in his career, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was also a committed segregationist and, in 1956, signed the Southern Manifesto, in opposition to Brown vs, Board of Education

Not the best look in what was then an evolving Democratic Party, and the party bosses who made the decisions in those days knew it. When it became time for Ike to crush Stevenson again, Sparkman was replaced by Tennessee’s more liberal Estes Kefauver, who did not sign the Southern Manifesto. Sparkman remained in the Senate, where he served for 23 more years.

This scary-looking guy to your left is John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who, during a truly extraordinary career that included being a Congressman, Senator, Secretary of State, and Secretary of War, also managed to sneak in two terms as Vice President under two very different Presidents, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. You are going to hear a lot over the next few weeks about “chemistry” between Joe Biden and his running mate. Suffice it to say that John C. Calhoun never had chemistry with anyone, except perhaps of the combustible kind. Mr. Jackson and Mr. Calhoun disagreed constantly, particularly on the enforcement of federal laws that South Carolina found not to its liking (including the juicily named “Tariff of Abominations”), which led Mr. Calhoun to resign the Vice Presidency during the Nullification Crisis in 1832.

I bring you these little worm-eaten chestnuts as an appetizer before today’s entrée, the coming vetting of either the next Vice President of the United States, or the next footnote to history. Sparkman’s and Calhoun’s experiences came to mind when it was announced that this is the week when Joe Biden’s team starts seriously thumbing through his binders of women. Since I have written kindly about Joe in the past, I thought he’d appreciate the input. Mr. Vice President, give me a call.

Who are these women? Here, in no particular order, are names that have been floated, bandied about, speculated on, trial-ballooned, and obsessed over: Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, Ambassador Susan Rice, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth, Congresswoman Val Demings, Nevada Senator Katherine Cortes Masto, Wisconsin’s Senator Tammy Baldwin, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, and primary opponents Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Kamala Harris. Biden has also said nice things about the two New Hampshire Senators, Jean Shaheen and Maggie Hassan.

All of them have strengths and weaknesses, but the most obvious past-is-prologue observation we can make is that even the best Vice Presidential choices are usually not difference-makers. It’s still about the top of the ticket, and Trump is still Trump, still selling a knowledge-free adrenaline-filled lifestyle brand to his still uber-loyal customers. Biden, on the other hand, is Mr. Kumbaya, a healer who also offers the radical idea that expertise and competence belong in the White House.

Of course, there won’t be any good vibes (or competence) unless Joe wins, and, in what is likely to be a brutal cage match with absolutely no rules, that is not going to be easy. Since he can’t out-glitz the Glitz King, he will look to improve his chances in a more conventional manner: Pick a running-mate who offers one or more of (a) youth and energy (please, no Tim Kaine duller-than-dull types), (b) can step into the Presidency if the need arises (and be a standard bearer in 2024), (c) offer a leg up with an important constituency, and (d) maybe (although history really doesn’t bear this out) give an advantage in a couple of critical states. Simple, right?

Trump himself did that (in a Trumpian way) in 2016. Having absolute confidence in his own abilities to run everything, he picked Mike Pence for his connection with the Evangelical community, and, more importantly, with megachurch pastors who were in the business of being faith leaders. Trump saw a demographic he could swallow whole, despite his sybaritic personal history. Pence was the vehicle able to put meat on Trump’s message, which basically came down to “I’m the sinner who is going to give you everything you’ve ever dreamed of.” Of all the promises Trump has made, this is the one he’s kept, probably because it’s the easiest—it takes nothing at all from him personally, and he gets his most loyal bloc. The Pence selection was a masterstroke.

Which of the potential Democratic nominees will produce the greatest marginal gain? That’s for Biden’s braintrust to figure out. But there is also a more subtle calculation that has to go on: With whom can Biden generate some chemistry? The ticket is not a marriage of equals. Presidents have vast power. Vice Presidents attend funerals and ribbon-cuttings, along with the occasional tie-breaking vote in the Senate. The Framers themselves placed so little importance on the position that, until the adoption of the 25th Amendment, there was no mechanism for replacing a Vice President, and no fewer than 16 vacancies went unfilled, several for years.

Because of this, the Vice-Presidential candidate must walk a tightrope between deference and establishing her own bona fides. Most successful pairings resolve this through the construct of ticket-balancing, giving both defined roles so they can play their parts without stepping on each other’s toes. Ike-Nixon and Reagan-Bush I (uniting both wings of the GOP), Bush II-Cheney and Obama-Biden (linking a younger, more charismatic candidate with age and experience) and JFK-LBJ (covering all the bases, including regional preferences and religious differences) are all good examples. The most notable exception to that is Clinton-Gore, but Clinton’s pick sent a calculated message that was right for the moment—after 12 years of conservative government led by senior citizens it was time for generational change. (I’ll never be able to get “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” out of my head.)

All of those tickets had one thing in common which won’t be applicable to Biden: The President was the star; the Vice President the character actor. JFK, Reagan, Clinton, and Obama were all generational political talents. Joe Biden is not. This could make him unusually vulnerable to the “Too Much Voltage at the Bottom of the Ticket” problem, when the voters pine for the Veep more than they do the person in the top spot. This happened to McCain with Palin (until she self-destructed), and to an extent with Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, John Kerry and John Edwards, and even Bob Dole and Jack Kemp.

Enough of the appetizer, time to get to the meal.

The New Hampshire Contingent: Realistically, there is no chance that either Jean Shaheen or Maggie Hassan will be selected. Whatever their stature, their seats would be filled by the (loyal) Republican Governor, Chris Sununu. With the Senate possibly in play, and Mitch McConnell taking the institution to new lows on a regular basis, regaining the majority is essential. While it’s not impossible that Joe would risk a Senate seat for some nominees, I don’t think he will for either of them.

Val Demmings: Her star rose during the House Impeachment hearings, but I think she’s overhyped if people are putting her on the short list. She’s an African-American former police chief who will drive Trump’s base bonkers, but with only three years of experience at the national level, it’s hard to argue she’d be ready. I don’t know how you risk an unknown at a time like this.

Those were the easy ones, now it gets harder.

Susan Rice: My initial reaction was, “no chance,” given that her nomination would cause Senate Republicans to writhe with feigned indignation and restart the Show Trials on Benghazi (Part 83). But Rice is accomplished and credible (and African-American if Biden thinks that’s important). This is a serious person who is more than capable of handling the Presidency, but I still think it’s a long shot.

Michelle Lujan Grisham and Catherine Cortez Masto are really interesting choices. Both are Latinas, and selecting one would be an acknowledgment of the growing impact of the Latino vote, particularly in states like Florida, Texas, and Arizona. Beyond that, both are able, popular in their home states and credible candidates. I’d rate Masto a bit ahead of Grisham. She has state and national experience: two terms as Attorney General before her election to the Senate. Joe also might need her. Nevada could be a difficult place this year for Democrats, depending on how the COVID-19 situation plays out. The Governor, Steve Sisolak, is a Democrat, and he’s getting slammed for the economic drain from any stay-at-home orders in a state where leisure and gaming industries (and their enormously deep pockets) play such a big role. Grisham and Masto are my dark horses.

Stacey Abrams has some star appeal, she’s very smart, very assertive, could help motivate the African-American vote, and, theoretically could put Georgia in play. But her biggest drawbacks are that she’s never won any election beyond the state legislature, and she lacks higher-level experience. Competence is on the table after a chaotic first term of Trump, particularly in light of his COVID-19 response. Experience doesn’t confer competence, but lack of it might be seen as a fatal flaw. I’m going to go against the grain on this one and say no. At this moment in time, she’s not the right pick.

The Tammys, Duckworth and Baldwin. They have different profiles. Duckworth is from Illinois, and, if the Democrats have to fight for that state, then Trump is waltzing towards reelection. Duckworth’s personal story is compelling; Purple Heart winner (double amputee) and first incumbent Senator to give birth while in office, but she hasn’t really been a star electorally. I don’t know if she adds enough. Baldwin is interesting: Wisconsin is going to be a bloodbath, regardless of the nominee, and if she can help deliver it, that could be crucial. She’s also gay, and that creates an interesting dynamic in an election in which social issues are going to be one of the drivers of Trump’s base. I like Baldwin more than Duckworth: she’s more Progressive than Duckworth (and that might be important to Sanders and Warren supporters) and she also comes across with more gravitas. The risk to a Baldwin nomination is putting the Wisconsin Senate seat at risk in a special election (don’t forget, the other Wisconsin Senator is the thoroughly unappealing Ron Johnson).

Keep your eye on Gretchen Whitmer. Look at the treatment she’s getting—a sustained assault by Trump, by Trump-friendly bots, by right-wing media, by “throngs” of “spontaneous demonstrators” spontaneously funded by dark money and all being given almost leering coverage by Fox and other Trump-affiliated networks. Whitmer has lived a political life—she comes from a political family and spent 14 years in the state legislature before becoming Governor, so she’s used to the public eye. She’s telegenic; she’s smart; she’s tough; and she’s exactly the type of woman with whom Trump cannot cope. But she’s going to be put through a meat grinder the likes of which few people could manage, and she’s making some mistakes. I like her potential (and taking back Michigan would be a huge get for Biden), but she’s a high-risk, high-reward pick.

The Almosts: Warren, Klobuchar, and Harris
Intuitively, you would think that Presidential nominees would look to select a former rival, given that they’ve all been vetted. That’s actually not been true recently. Since 1960, only LBJ, Bush I and Edwards were actually runners-up, and only Biden himself was an early dropout. Some of this may have been because of a clash of egos, but Dave Wasserman of The Cook Political Report made an interesting observation that Warren, Klobuchar, and Harris, given their failures in the primaries, have already demonstrated their lack of firepower. Still, all three will get serious consideration.

Elizabeth Warren likely won’t be the nominee, although she may stay on the short list for some time. Not only is there a problem with the loss of her seat (Charlie Baker, a Republican, is Governor of Massachusetts), but she showed some troubling vulnerabilities in the later stages of her campaign. She seemed to have lost her bearings, and her spat with Bernie won’t help. She’s also a little vintage—spritely, but still in her 70s. She will be 75 in 2024, and one wonders whether America, after one angry septuagenarian followed by a kindly-but-somewhat dotty one, will really want a third, regardless of her vigor. Warren has another act left in her, but I’m not sure this is it.

Amy Klobuchar rings a lot of bells. She’s Midwest when Biden is going to need every possible advantage there. She’s got a hidden asset in her daughter, who is a terrific surrogate. She’s genuinely experienced (first elected to the Senate in 2006), and she’s good on her feet. She stayed in the race long enough to make an impression, but not so long as to feel stale, and she didn’t strafe Biden when she was in. I don’t necessarily think she’s a soaring political talent, but this is a safe, solid pick for Biden.

Kamala Harris: Also smart, tough, telegenic, with a real (if controversial) record of accomplishment. She did a very shrewd thing with her early exit, sparing herself a lot of fruitless bruising. She does have some issues—there are stories that her campaign was poorly managed, although that would seem to be less relevant in the Veep slot, and she took after Biden on the race issue in their first debate, which might make for some awkward questions. A lot of people think she has the best chance, but I have some concerns. I wonder if the chemistry will be right between them. Harris has a prosecutor’s demeanor that may not play off well against Biden’s gauzier appeal.

I want to close with a different thought. There are at least half a dozen women on this list who would make fine running mates and creditable Presidents. They aren’t the problem. Joe is, and not just because of his age, but because of his caution. Biden is offering a return to civic duty and communitarianism as a cure for what ails us, but where are the innovative ideas about improving people’s lives? There is a tremendous amount of talent in this country, just waiting to be used. Trump has no use for any of it. Joe Biden ought to. He and his running mate can be a conduit to that talent, and, in the process, transform his candidacy, and Presidency, from a mere caretaker to truly transitional.

The Presidency is a gift and an opportunity. It’s up to Biden and his running mate (and potential successor) to tell us what they intend to do with both. They need to start thinking about tomorrow.


Biden's Binders: We Select a Veep first appeared on 3quarksdaily.com on April 27th, 2020

https://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2020/04/bidens-binders-we-select-a-veep.html

And, please follow us on Twitter @SyncPol

Monday, March 30, 2020

Sitzfleisch And A Movie In The Time Of Plague-On 3Q
by Michael Liss

I am one of those people who cannot sit still. I wasn’t good at it as a child, and as the decades pass, every indication is that I will never be good at it. I suspect I inherited this from my father, who lacked a single iota of Sitzfleisch, and have passed on the gene to one of my children (no need to name names here, she knows who she is and who to blame.)
I did fully disclose this to my wife before we were married, not that she needed to be told. She hangs in there, with occasional  moments of thoroughly merited exasperation. Weekdays tend to take care of themselves, as we both work fairly long hours. Weekends, on the other hand, can be problematic, so I’m fairly sure she likes it when I leave to go running in the park with my group. As I’m not the greyhound I used to be, this can take quite a bit of time, especially when you add in a stop on the way back for some empty calories. Before you know it, it’s almost Noon. Sitzfleisch problem solved, at least until 1:30.
Of course, this was all before Coronavirus, all before I was deemed “non-essential” and even officially old. I’m not sure where this “old” nonsense came from, but the solicitude for my health and wellbeing merely as a function of an arbitrary number is a little hard to take. All of a sudden there seem to be an awful lot of things I’m not supposed to be doing. I never thought “aging in place” was meant to be taken literally.
This is such a petty complaint. In my City, my Mighty Gotham, we are apparently all aging in place, all taking care by taking shelter. This just doesn’t suit us well. Sitzfleisch is for suburbanites.…the kind of folks who drive a football field’s distance for a quart of milk and have 5,000 square-foot homes with enormous refrigerators, storage space, and a game room where the kids can fight with each other from another zip code.

If you live in the City and have a 5,000 square foot home, you have other homes as well, and are almost certainly in one of them. For the rest of us, we have joined the battalions of the shut-ins and shut-downs. Our buildings and businesses are shut down. Broadway and high culture closed. There are barred doors to some of the highest-end retail shops in the world (often announced by plain-white signs on doors). Diners and pizza parlors open for take-out only. Starbucks closed. Thousands of little shops, also deemed non-essential, sadly stare out with empty eyes. Some of those eyes will never see again.   

This nags at me, this sense that Coronavirus will be like smallpox, and, if we get through it, there will still be scars that will not fade. We will be changed.

Teddy Roosevelt once said that “[c]haracter, in the long run, is the decisive factor in the life of an individual and of nations alike.” Crises have a way of finding the core—some can keep their eyes on the goal and rise above it, others melt down and blather.

We’ve been fortunate here. Andrew Cuomo has risen to the occasion. Fifty thousand health-care professionals have come out of retirement to put themselves in harm’s way. Our cops, firefighters, transit workers, hospital personnel and EMTs have been extraordinary. But what makes this situation far more complicated is that our success in handling this war can’t be solved with just logistics and heroics. The rest is up to us: We need to take care of ourselves and take care of others. We need to be a true community, albeit at a six-foot length.

For non-essential me, working remotely from home, with my essential-but-also-working-remotely wife, this means adjusting to her perceptive (but wildly improbable) suggestion, “You need to develop some Sitzfleish.” I’m still going running, but alone now, so my kinship is reduced to those strangers who pass me (with proper social distancing), and sightings of two regulars, “Bare-Chested Guy” and Mr. G, redoubtable meteorologist for a local TV station.

That 90 minutes of clean air and clear mind helps a bit with the Sitzfleish problem, but it’s only 90 minutes. I need other distractions. I was reading Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome, but that turned out to be a spectacularly poor choice: how climate change and pandemics brought down the Roman Empire.

I think we would all agree that’s a no, so I turned to Netflix and YouTube, enlisting alongside Horatio Hornblower, in the terrific eight-part series starring Ioan Gruffudd. Duty, loyalty, cannons, duels, Napoleon, bravery, comradeship, Frogs and Lobsters. There was an episode with the plague…but everyone lived. Still, how many times can you watch derring-do and men yelling “fire”?

Quite a lot, as it turns out, but, ultimately, I turned to David Lynch’s astonishing, and astonishingly beautiful The Straight Story. Based on a true story, it literally is about Sitzfleisch—an old man sitting on a small tractor as he drives 240 miles from Laurens, Iowa to Mount Zion, Wisconsin, to find and reconcile with his ailing brother. In a perfect bit of casting, Lynch picked Richard Farnsworth (who spent decades in obscurity as a stunt man before an Oscar nomination for Comes a Horseman) to play Alvin Straight.

Farnsworth’s face alone is worth the visit; the sun has baked it into a pair of knowing blue eyes set in a glorious map of deep wrinkles. Out of it comes a reedy tenor and an almost sideways way of speaking—unlike many actors, Farnsworth doesn’t rush his lines. Alvin’s hips are shot from a lifetime of labor, and he can no longer pass the eye test for a driver’s license, but, when he hears that his older brother Lyle has had a stroke, he’s impelled to make the trip. He sends his developmentally disabled daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek, in an exquisitely self-effacing performance) to stock up on wieners and liverwurst (leading to a very witty scene where neither the checkout clerk nor Rose quite understand each other), puts a hitch on a handmade mobile trailer, plants himself on a tractor, and begins his trek.

He doesn’t get very far, the tractor being perhaps even older than he. After a swap into a more roadworthy John Deere, off Alvin goes, up and down gentle hills through the farm country. When the light fails, he sleeps by the side of the road, cooks the wieners with a stick over an open fire, and lights up a cigar. Farnsworth has a wonderful emotional stillness about him in these moments—he’s at home on the road.

The Straight Story is really a series of small, perfect, vignettes. Some are gently comic, but this is not a road movie, and it’s certainly not a bucket-list film. Everyone is treated with respect both by the camera and the script. Lynch is secure enough to let his largely starless cast be themselves and has enough discipline to let the scenery speak for itself.

At some point, while you are watching, you might ask yourself when the action will begin. In some respects, it never does. This is the action. Nothing wasted. Everywhere, there’s simple living, common courtesy, and a friendly hand. Alvin’s a proud man, and independent, and those who help have the uncommon gift of not making it charity.

What you find is that it isn’t charity at all. The movie doesn’t infantilize Alvin because he’s old. He is old, and worn, and physically diminished, but he’s not done. He’s still competent. He can still build things, use a welding torch, a shotgun, and his quick wits and a sharp, knowing eye. All those years of living, the good and the bad, left him something to give, and he does. There’s a tranquil evening with a runaway pregnant teen, a moment in a church graveyard when a priest comes out to talk, a pair of feuding brothers, and a stunner in a bar where he shares memories with a fellow World War II vet.

Everything takes time. Like the gentle score by Angelo Badalamenti (who also did Twin Peaks) and the speed of Alvin’s mower, the story just unfolds with the passing landscape, as he makes his way to Lyle. He survives a mechanical failure and near crash, and, while his tractor is repaired, stays with a retired John Deere employee named Danny Riordan and his wife Darla. The couple’s interactions made me smile, particularly when Darla gently teases Danny about being a soft touch, and lets him know she’s glad she married him—despite what her mother said.

Eventually, Alvin gets back on the road. It’s a long journey, and I won’t spoil the ending for you. I’ll simply say that, in a time of chaos, of isolation and uncertainty, this movie reminded me of things that most of us want—family, friendship, community.

I don’t know what’s on the other side of the Coronavirus pandemic, but I hope it’s something as simple as Alvin’s parting words to Danny:


“I want to thank you for your kindness to a stranger.”

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